Problem clients are inevitable. Therapists have to be ready to deal with whatever comes through the door. However sometimes it is not just how to fix what they want that is the issue. Occasionally it is the person themself who is the problem.
I had a woman come to see me yesterday. She gave no indication on the online booking of what her problem was. She came in and sat down. I said 'I will just turn off my cellphone', as an indirect suggestion that she might want to do the same. And I got a glare as if I should have done that before she arrived.
My custom is to get the client to write their name and email address on my clipboard so that I have a reminder of the name during the session and doing a little task often gives a nervous client time to settle down. This client challenged me and said 'You already have that!'
Warning signs of a problem client
We moved on and I asked her 'Is is OK if I record this session?' And I got an instant 'No, it isn't'. When I asked why not, she replied 'I don't want anyone else listening to what I say'. Very forceful, and very aggressive.
It has been my experience that I get about two clients a year who don't want the session recorded. Occasionally the client wants to talk about delicate sexual matters, and that's OK. It is also my experience that every problem client I have ever had was one who refused to allow the session to be recorded. Refusal is now an instant warning flag to me.
I considered terminating the session right then, but decided to continue with the session to see whether I could retrieve the situation. I asked what her problem was and she said 'Drinking. It is ruining my relationship'. I then asked her whey she just didn't stop. Answer 'I don't know'. Why do you think you drink? Answer 'I don't know'. What do you get out of it? 'I don't know'. And so it went on. Every attempt to access her feelings was blocked. As I started to explore her behavior and how and when she drank I kept pointing out inconsistencies. For example, 'I can't stop drinking' and 'I only drink at weekends'. Pushing further into why she was drinking, total aggressive defensiveness came out. Then I got to what harm her drinking was doing to her relationship if her partner also drank, the real reason emerged. 'I snap at him when I am drinking and say things that I wouldn't say when I am sober.'
This began to sound to me like an extreme case of Black and White thinking. I gently probed for evidence of depressive behavior. She immediately went into defensive mode. Every attempt to suggest that she might have some aspect or other was strongly denied. And not just denied: it was refuted in a way that made it clear that she thought I was an idiot. Every question was thrown back at me, and I began to realize exactly what was happening in her relationship.
And I also realized that my first instinct was right: it was time to get her out of my office. Even though I recognized that it was simply her subconscious defending her psyche against any attempt by me to get near whatever the real cause was, the way she was doing it was affecting my psyche as well.
Transference from the problem client
Traditional psychoanalysis warns against something called Transference. This is the tendency of the analyst to take on the personality and mimic the issues of their patients. The degree of transference depends on the strength of the personality of both parties. A strong patient and weak analyst will transfer in one direction, a strong analyst and week patient will transfer in the other direction.
This is not normally a problem in hypnotherapy because hypnotherapists usually only see clients once or twice, whereas psychoanalysts could see their patients for hundreds of sessions. However it is the strength of the personality that matters. In this case the woman was so emotionally aggressive that I found myself reacting to her words and attitude, and I could feel myself tightening up inside as she hooked into my own archaic triggers. If I had let the session continue we both would have continued giving stronger and stronger responses to what the other said.
So I terminated the session and wished her success in finding someone else to help.
I hope she does find a way out of it.
He is highly regarded in the hypnotherapy community. He is Vice President of the New Zealand Association of Professional Hypnotherapists (NZAPH).
He is regularly consulted for advice by other hypnotherapists around the world. He is known for the quality of his published scripts. He presents at international conferences and has published on hypnosis and advanced hypnotherapy.
He lives in Wellington New Zealand with his wife Trish and a cat called Parsnip.