Challenging clients is OK, even if it means they don’t come back

Brodie Vissers / Burst / Used under licenseWe’ve all been dropped by clients at some point in our therapy careers. It may be due to scheduling, payment for services (or lack thereof), your specialty or theory of choice, your interventions, or just your own unique personality. That is all OK. It is OK to lose a client. In fact, there are a number of situations when losing a client may be beneficial. When a client drops you after you were challenging them in session, it may make more sense — at least sometimes — to consider it a success than a failure.

I’ll share a personal example here, from earlier in my career. In this case, losing a client was ultimately for the better. (I’ve changed significant details here to protect the client’s identity.)

I had been seeing a client — let’s call him Steven — for five sessions. He had come in to address concerns in his marital relationship. During our sixth session, Steven began to divulge some difficult early childhood interactions between himself and his mother. As Steven was sharing these experiences, it seemed that there was a similarity between the behavior of his mother in the past, and his behavior in the present.

After he had finished sharing, I asked Steven whether he was in a mental place for me to challenge him. He said he was, and I began to question whether he recognized any similarities between his behavior and his mother’s.
Steven immediately broke down in tears. He said that he felt my comments were incredibly inappropriate and unjustified. He said that I should never have challenged him on something that made him feel so vulnerable.

For a moment, I was shocked. We attempted to do a quick repair of the relationship, but there were only a few moments left in the session. Ultimately, Steven left, and he chose to schedule a follow-up appointment with a different provider.

Walking out of that session I felt incredibly confused, sad, and even a little disappointed in the decision I had made. After a few minutes, however, I began to realize that this was not about me. The reaction that Steven had was more likely due to his own awareness of what I had attempted to highlight, and his extreme discomfort to address it. Although the reaction resulted in the end of my therapeutic relationship with Steven, it was important for me to remember that he had actively chosen to continue therapy, albeit with another provider.

Challenging clients is risky. Some clients respond better than others. Despite the range of responses, however, I stand by my decision that it is worth the risk. Of course, there is always room to examine how we can most effectively challenge our clients. We want to have a meaningful impact while maintaining the therapeutic relationship. I’ve spent a lot of time since that encounter with Steven refining the ways I challenge.

But I still challenge. I believe it is better to take the risk of challenging clients than to let them flounder in therapy, endlessly “exploring” things that aren’t the real issue. Like every therapist, I went through (and expensive) education and training. Challenging clients is where that investment pays off.