Relating to clients who don’t relate well – 3 keys to avoid reinforcing bad experiences.

  • Monday, January 23, 2017
  • Shona Innes Psychology


 All of the fanciest qualifications in the world won’t help a client if you cannot develop a working relationship with them so that you can deliver what it is they really need from you.

Neglect, abuse and violence, or an absence of reliability, warmth and safety can leave some clients seeing other people as a possible source of threat or abandonment, even the kind and helpful people.

Arming themselves against this likelihood of threat from others, some complex clients develop patterns of relating that minimise emotions and connection.

Clients may use other people just as a means to some ends, some clients may have a complete absence of warmth, and some may cling to anyone at all in the hope that they can get as many needs as possible met before the relationship falls apart.

When complex clients receive a service from an agency, the way they relate combines with the way that workers relate and either leads to a positive experience that assists the clients to meet their goals or it reinforces the clients previously held negative experiences about helpers and agencies.

Getting the client – agency relationship wrong can give the client a series of experiences that confirm their histories:

“no one listens”

“people will always abandon me, why should I bother?”

If you work for an agency that provides services to multiple complex clients, there is a risk of developing a negative culture among the agency team, that affects relationships with clients and contributes to the risk of burn out by making the workers feel ineffective and their work feels meaningless or overwhelming.

Here are 3 key ways you can relate to someone who needs help relating:

  1. Remember why you are there – Be clear about your client’s goals and your agency’s goalsFocus on goals knowing that your client’s goals can drift and change over time. Keep checking with the client about their goal. Do they still want that outcome? There will always be organisational requirements and paperwork. Try to minimise the impact of paperwork and administration on your client or take time to work through it with them, together. Time at a shared task, no matter how menial, can be really fruitful 
  2. Be reliable and courteous – Be that worker who is reliable and always available at routine and set times.  If for some reason this might change (like taking leave or being away because of illness), you need to let your client know as early as possible and make alternative arrangements. If possible, offer your client some choice in the alternatives. Always let them know when you are next available for them.
  3. Know yourself – Your own patterns of relating to clients might fall right into the client’s old patterns with relationships.  Thinking that you are going to be “the One” worker who will change their life is an amazing goal, but will likely set you up in an all or nothing relationship with failure. Equally as dangerous is the belief that you will be ineffective and change nothing so it’s best to keep them at arm’s length or even to manage them like they are a sack of potatoes – sacks of potatoes don’t need emotional investment and can’t let you down or tell you that you are a bad worker.

Professional peer consultation or supervision is crucial to each of these keys to relating with complex clients. Find a supervisor or mentor who you can have safe conversation with about your own patterns and goals. If a session doesn’t go well…take time to discuss it and pull it apart in supervision so you can repair ruptures early.

Shona regularly provides professional peer consultation, supervision or individually crafted workshops to help you and your team build and maintain relationships with complex clients

To find out more, please call Shona Innes Psychology on 0400 150 106 or email or contact us via this website.