Counseling is inarguably one of the most rewarding avenues through healthcare in demand right now. Millions of people struggle with past traumas and psychological concerns that prevent them from building meaningful relationships, holding down jobs and generally moving on with their lives.
As such, people rely on their therapists and counselors to provide tailored advice and guidance. What’s more important, however, is that their counselors build rapport and trust with them during treatment. But why is this the case? Surely, it’s just as important for a counselor to also have technical knowledge?
That’s certainly true in many respects. However, without rapport and trust between clients and counselors, the treatment that the latter can provide actually becomes rather limited.
In this guide, we’ll discuss why building a therapeutic relationship is so important for counseling success and how counselors can (and should) start building this interpersonal rapport with clients as early as possible.
What is a therapeutic relationship?
The term ‘therapeutic relationship’ refers to a client’s association with a counselor. It’s the setting and basis within which a therapist can begin to offer support to people struggling with mental health problems, life trauma and issues that are not simple to resolve with physical treatments or traditional surgery.
Ultimately, for talking therapies and psychological counseling to be effective, there must be a strong foundation in terms of a therapeutic relationship. It ensures that clients feel safe, comfortable and secure in presenting information and feelings they would typically feel vulnerable in disclosing.
Therefore, as you might imagine, building such a relationship means that counselors must reassure their patients that it’s safe and acceptable for them to share details about their inner struggles or concerns in a private environment.
The rules apply regardless of where a counselor might practice. If you’re studying to become a therapist in Florida, or are learning how to become a licensed mental health counselor in NY – via St. Bonaventure University, for example – you’ll find the therapeutic relationship to be the backbone of your studies.
In fact, you’ll find at St. Bonaventure that you’ll start learning about therapeutic relationships early on, with modules and seminars from there on out helping you develop into a well-rounded counselor.
Before getting into education and learning the ropes via university, however, it’s always worth looking into the finer points of the therapeutic relationship and learning why trust and rapport are so critical to future success with clients.
Why trust and rapport matter between counselors and clients
Consider how new counseling and therapy clients might feel when they enter a clinic or therapeutic space for the first time. It’s likely to be a little scary, especially if they do not have experience with this type of treatment. What’s more, many patients are impressionable young people who may feel frightened about what happens next.
It’s the role of the counselor to help reassure patients, regardless of their age and their concerns, that they have a safe space in which to talk.
It’s also just as important for counselors to develop a more interpersonal relationship than a transactional one. While such a relationship is transactional at its core (a client is looking for support from a counselor), building a therapeutic relationship with interpersonal skills ensures that patients feel that they’re receiving genuine care and guidance from someone who wants to help them.
Let’s look a little closer at why rapport and trust are so fundamental to the success of client-counselor relationships.
Therapy can be uncomfortable
As mentioned, therapy and counseling are never likely to feel comfortable for many people just getting into the process. Ultimately, it’s the counselor’s job to understand this and help create an environment that’s as comfortable and safe as possible.
Many people might show resistance to counseling if they don’t feel completely comfortable with their surroundings, or with the people they communicate with (i.e., their counselors). This means that it’s the counselor’s job from the get-go to show their human side – and to create a space that’s universally welcoming and calm.
While it’s not the be-all and end-all, counselors should consider how they present their spaces (such as their furniture and lighting) to ensure that clients feel that they have enough space to air their concerns. The classic ‘couch’ approach might work well in some cases – if not, then it’s likely worthwhile moving away from stuffy, upright chairs, as this might remind clients of doctor’s appointments or job interviews.
Given that people do find therapy so uncomfortable at first, a counselor should always be ready to make the process all about their clients as early on as possible – and from there, give patients a chance to explore their concerns at a pace that suits them.
This means striking a balance between offering the chance to talk and to explore details, while not moving at a break-neck pace. Some counselors, for example, may choose to talk about their experiences or focus on positive areas of the clients’ lives – even innocuous lead-ins such as talking about the weather could help people feel more comfortable.
It’s safe to say that talking about politics and current events may not prove useful to discussions. Counselors should therefore avoid such triggers wherever possible.
Clients find it easier to talk about difficult issues
Once clients feel that they’re in a safe enough space to open up about their lives and concerns, they will likely start to see progress fairly quickly. The more connected a patient feels to their counselor (based on the therapeutic relationship model), the more likely they will want to share details about their lives and seek support.
This doesn’t always follow, but in an environment and in a relationship where counselors give clients free opportunities to explore trauma and psychological difficulties at their own pace, it’s safe to say that progress will follow.
It’s worth remembering that all clients are different and will ease into therapeutic relationships and counseling at different speeds. Therefore, the counselor must always be ready to listen carefully to what their charges have to say, and to mold their treatments around their individual needs. For true counseling success, they must always be willing to let the process evolve midway.
The more comfortable and at-ease clients feel with their counselors and their therapy settings, the more likely it is that they will dig deeper into difficult topics. Those impacted by abuse during childhood, domestic violence, psychological abuse or otherwise might not feel ready to discuss their experiences before such a relationship develops.
The counselor should therefore remember that while building rapport and trust with patients is key to helping them realize trauma that’s holding them back in life, they won’t always expect clients to open up right away. What’s more, deep-seated trauma may be deep enough that clients don’t remember, or even realize, what may have happened to them in their past.
Much of this relationship and process revolves around trust – so let’s explore this facet in closer detail.
Clients trust impartiality
Before any client is likely to open up to anyone, they need to feel that they can trust their counselors or therapists. It’s likely that you’ll feel the same way – while many of us are comfortable sharing our life experiences and internal concerns with others, this certainly doesn’t apply to the broader public.
As such, all counselors must remember that clients likely have trust barriers in place. This might be as a result of bullying or relationship abuse they’ve experienced. Some clients may need help rebuilding trust in other people. The counselor must therefore ensure that their patients know that their space is safe and that their charges are ready to place their trust in their support.
Counselors must always establish that the details shared within any given session are private between the two people attending. While insisting this may not completely reassure all patients, it still goes some way to reconfirming what’s actually in their best interests.
To work through some deep-seated issues, clients must ultimately realize that they must be ready to discuss concerns at the top of their minds and deeper within. This is not an easy process, and given that all counselors and clients are different, the process is never ‘one size fits all’.
A solid therapeutic relationship ensures that clients feel they can trust their counselors enough to divulge their worries and deeper problems that won’t get shared outside the therapy space.
What should counselors do to build rapport and trust?
Expecting clients to trust and be comfortable in the presence of therapy right away is unreasonable. As mentioned, each client will have slightly different expectations when it comes to therapy, and this means that counselors must be ready to tailor their treatments.
That said, there are always a few techniques that counselors and therapists can use to help ease clients into the process. These rules can help therapists working with couples, solo adults or even school career counselors. Let’s take a look at a few quick tips for building rapport and establishing trust within the therapy space.
Review client notes carefully
When treating clients for the first time, charging in with assumptions simply isn’t going to work. Therefore, all counselors must take the time to carefully read notes and learn about their clients before they meet each session.
Counselors who show that they take the time to listen to what clients have to say and recap on each session’s notes are likely to connect well with patients who worry that they have no one in their lives to talk to.
A counselor who demonstrates that they have ‘done their homework’ will likely resonate well with often vulnerable clients who want to feel that their therapists invest deeply in them and their issues. They’re not ‘just another patient’ – and while counselors will often have heavy workloads and many clients to see, this interpersonal touch goes a long way to helping people find the resolutions they need more quickly.
Listen actively and without judgment
Active listening is vital in a therapeutic relationship. The counselor should ideally talk less than the client. They should be ready to listen and absorb information from their patients so that they may lead conversations toward moments of clarity, realization or discussion points that counselors feel are important in the recovery process.
The work of a counselor is often helping people access solutions to their problems rather than presenting solutions outright. In many cases, it’s about discussing difficult moments, such as trauma, and exploring how to get closure on such issues so that people can healthily move forward with their lives.
To do this, a counselor must completely invest themselves in listening to what clients have to say. Active listening doesn’t mean giving clients the complete stage to talk, but looking for ways to steer the conversation and to question them to find deeper meaning behind what they have to say.
Beyond active listening (which is a vital skill in most social interactions), counselors should also show zero bias or judgment. Unless a patient is a danger to themselves or to members of the public, therapy should be a safe space for people to discuss their problems without negative reactions.
People go through incredible difficulties and traumatic experiences. This can lead some people to react in unpleasant or even illegal ways. Therefore, counselors must always be ready to show impartiality. Doing so may surprise some patients, as they may expect to receive negative reactions and, therefore, immediately be on the defensive.
Demonstrating that this doesn’t affect the progress or outcome of therapy will likely help people open up more. This doesn’t always follow immediately, but laying an open, impartial foundation is one of the best ways to establish trust and build rapport.
Know their limits
Counselors will always learn that patients have limits. There’s only so much that some people will be willing to say or divulge in a given session. Therefore, it’s healthy (and helpful for the client) to explore deeper problems and concerns over multiple visits.
Counselors should always carefully map out treatment plans and discussions with clients ahead of time, to ensure that they know what to expect, and how treatment is likely to transpire in time. Some patients may be willing to take as many sessions as possible, while others may seek resolutions as quickly as possible.
Therefore, it’s vital for counselors to be patient and open with their clients. They must always allow clients to move at their own pace, and while it’s reasonable that counselors will always ask questions of their patients, people will have limits to how much they can process at any given time.
After a few sessions, many counselors should start to understand what to expect from certain clients. That said, building this understanding can and will take time.
Be willing to give the relationship time to develop
This is an important point for both counselors and patients to remember. There’s never likely to be a firm resolution to problems at the first or second session, and therefore care plans must be flexible and fluid enough to change at any moment.
Just as much as counselors must be ready to give time for the relationship to develop, clients will also need reassurance that it will take time for therapy to transpire as expected. This, again, falls to the counselor to set clear expectations early on in the process.
The longer the relationship develops, the more time clients will have to feel at ease discussing difficult topics and traumas that they might not be comfortable getting into initially. Therefore, longer relationships benefit both parties, certainly when finding long-lasting resolutions to complex problems presented during therapy.
Above all, empathy is the cornerstone of a good therapeutic relationship. Counselors must always show that they’re empathetic to the problems that clients are facing, establishing that while they might not be going through the same trauma, they feel empathy and that they want to help them get through what’s hurting them.
Patients receiving empathy will become receptive to additional care and will likely open up more. Once they feel happy and safe enough to share more details with counselors, they will likely progress more efficiently toward a healthy conclusion to therapy.
Effective counseling is always a two-way street. Counselors must work hard to develop a plan to help patients and clients feel as comfortable as possible when sharing information in their spaces. What’s more, trust and rapport are vital for anyone to share deeply personal information within the context of a therapy session.
It’s likely that many counselors will learn the technical and interpersonal skills needed to bring the best out of their clients while studying at university. However, there are always ways to develop skills on the job – and remember, if you are interested in getting into counseling work yourself, every client and case will be very different from the last. You’ll always need to adjust your plans.
Counseling is extremely rewarding for everyone involved, but it’s a process that will take time and care and is built around a therapeutic relationship.