Be on time for your clients

Be on time for your appointments & consultations. Punctuality conveys professionalism, respect and allows you to address & manage possible resistance on the part of the client.

There’s a Catch–22 type joke (at least, I thought it was a joke) about clients’ attendance at appointments:

If they’re early, they’re anxious; if they’re on time, they’re obsessional; if they’re late, they’re resistant.

Therapists, by contrast, seem only to have two modes: on time (rare) and late (mostly). Lateness on the part of therapists is usually due to an excessive workload and so is likely to be forgiven—or at least tolerated—by NHS clients. The implicit message, that the therapist’s time is more valuable than the client’s, doesn’t make for a good start to a session, however.

In an over-subscribed service, punctuality is difficult to ensure. Many medical services don’t even try, overbooking clinics on the principle that there will be non-attendances. The aim is to ensure that the clinician never has to wait for a patient, but this almost guarantees that the patient will face a lengthy wait.

Punctuality has no downside. Lateness may imply importance and high demand, but punctuality conveys professionalism, courtesy and credibility: who would accept time management advice from someone who arrived late?

Ten minutes in a busy clinic can be a very short time: scribbling casenotes, fielding phone calls and requests from colleagues, scanning files and letters prior to your next appointment.

Ten minutes in a waiting room is a long time, especially if you have arrived early in order to ensure that you are on time, if you are anxious or in pain, or if you have psyched yourself up for the appointment. A punctual therapist will get a calmer, less anxious client.

Therapists who book appointments back to back (or overbook clinics) to compensate for non-attendance are replacing one problem with another. Punctuality ensures that persistently late clients are obvious to the therapist, not just their receptionist, permitting contributory issues to be addressed. Tackling client lateness when you are habitually late would be a challenge for even the most blatant hypocrite!

Check you have the right client

Check you have the right person before you begin your session. There is scope for confusion in busy clinics, but mistakes can occur even in otherwise empty waiting rooms.

There was only one person in the waiting area. I said her name and she followed me into my room. After 10 minutes or so, it became clear she wasn’t my client: she was in a lot of pain and had been awaiting a GP; when I walked into the waiting room, she hadn’t listened to the name I called. She missed her actual appointment and I missed my actual client.

Outside of addiction services, therapy clients rarely have anything to gain by posing as someone else. When dealing with people who are distracted by pain, hallucinations or medication, however, there is potential for confusion.

Most therapists are accessed via reception staff. Depending upon the layout of the facility, receptionists may be able to point out your client in the waiting area (or at least confirm that your client has arrived). In a busy outpatient clinic or GP surgery, this may not be possible.

Calling a client’s name in a busy waiting room may get you someone with a similar name awaiting another therapist. Explaining your role and name dropping the referrer may be enough to alert the client that they are in the wrong session, but clients are frequently referred without adequate consultation or by locums or other staff whose names they don’t know.

First time clients may have psyched themselves up to speak to a stranger about their most intimate concerns Even if not in pain or on medication, they may not be listening for much other than their cue to reel off their story. Details such as the wrong GP or profession may pass them by.

Clients with multiple appointments or a history of referrals may be numb to the whole process. They no longer attend to therapists’ names or professions: they just follow the latest person to call their name and do what they’re told, however unusual it may seem.

Short of requesting photo ID, there’s no foolproof way to prevent identity confusion, but the potential can be minimised by requesting that the client provide a piece of personal information: “can you just tell me your correct address?” or “can you just confirm your date of birth?”. Don’t give the information in the question: “is your date of birth 29.10.64?” can be answered with a nod that proves nothing.

The aim is to request a single piece of fairly specific data, the provision of which both confirms the clients’ identity and passes control of the conversation back to you, so that the client doesn’t launch into their story before you’ve been able to explain consent or confidentiality.

Prevent panic: keep your room cool

Prevent clients from panicking by keeping your room cool. Overheating clients can misinterpret a rise in room temperature as the onset of a panic attack.

Panic occurs when benign physical sensations are interpreted as threatening, leading to a surge of adrenaline which exacerbates the sensations and the perceived threat (eg: a cramped chest muscle causes anxiety and tension, increasing the pain from the muscle and increasing the worry that a heart attack is occurring).

Anxious clients entering a hot consulting room can misinterpret the rise in temperature as a rise in their own anxiety levels. Fearing that they will lose control in front of you, they will produce more adrenaline, further raising their body temperature and beginning the vicious circle of a panic attack.

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Always ask when you don’t understand

Asking when you don’t understand benefits you and your clients. Pretending to understand can discourage disclosure and support poor decision making.

When I began working with people with learning disabilities, I was told “don’t pretend that you’ve understood what someone says to you”. This seemed fairly obvious advice until I was in the embarrassing situation of having to say “I’m sorry: I didn’t catch that” for the third time in five minutes.

Whether faced with a speech impediment or bombarded with abbreviations & unknown references, it is tempting to nod in agreement and try to move on. In either case, the principle is the same: by attempting to avoid embarrassment now, you’re preparing the ground for future, potentially much more serious, problems.

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Check your client can read and write

Checking that your client can read & write assists both you and them. Attempting to use questionnaires, journals or bibliotherapy with someone hiding their illiteracy could end your intervention before it has begun.

Literacy isn’t essential in therapy: psychological therapies aren’t called “talking cures” for nothing and physical therapies usually require little in the way of reading or writing. Clients who cannot write can keep pictorial records or use voice recorders (now built into many mobile phones) to keep notes of thoughts or actions. Much of the literature therapists would wish to hand out to clients could, with a little effort, be offered as graphics or video & audio recordings.

The difficulty for most therapists will be in identifying clients whose illiteracy may be one of their most closely guarded and shameful secrets. Ticking the boxes on your questionnaire need not mean that the questions have been read. Phrases like “your writing is too small” or “I’ve left my glasses at home” may mean exactly what they say, or may be well-practiced cover-up routines. Allocating an illiterate person to bibliotherapy can be a waste of their time and yours.

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Use your casenotes as a Foley file

Making notes of information incidental to the case enhances interactions. The more personal details you retain, the more intimate the interaction and the greater the sense of personal attention.

Compare & contrast the following:

Last time you said you were going on holiday with your husband and daughter but you were worried about the journey: how well did it go?

Two weeks ago you said you were going to Greece with David & Sally but you were worried about the flight: how well did it go?

Item one says: I was listening. Item two says: I was really paying attention.

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Claim your chair with your notepad

Use your notepad to claim your chair before the client enters the room. If you can sit where you need to be, there will be no unease to be misinterpreted by the client.

A prison inmate advised me that I was sitting in the “wrong place”. I wasn’t sure what he meant. He explained that I had naively given him the chair nearest the panic button. Although he had no plans to attack me or hold me to ransom, he was concerned that I might make the same error with some of his less forgiving peers.

There are many reasons why a therapist might wish to occupy a given seat in the consulting room: security (proximity to the panic button and/or the door), easy access to equipment (phone, instruments or tests), presentation (if taping the session) or simply a different view. One GP’s room I used had a skeleton in the corner! I always made sure my clients were facing away from this, particularly in discussions of bereavement and chronic illness.

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Transfer control of the session with codes

Unfamiliar co-therapists can use code phrases to transfer control of the session. Both they and the client can then focus on the client’s issues rather than the dynamics between the therapists.

While there should be no confusion in the mind of the client as to who is leading the session, there may be some stress for the therapists. Trainees may wonder if and when their supervisor will take over (or in some cases, may wish their supervisor to rescue them!). Supervisors may wish to ask a question or reinforce a point, but hesitate to undermine the trainee by interrupting.

The client’s focus should be on the issues they bring to therapy. Any awareness of unease on the part of their therapist may distract from this focus. Transfer of control of the session from one therapist to the other should be obvious to the client, but wrangling between the therapists should not.

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Be ready for clients’ companions

Be prepared to deal with the companions clients may bring to therapy. Dealing gracefully and helpfully with them can’t hurt your relationship with the client.

With the obvious exception of Marital Therapy and Child & Family Therapy, models of therapy tend to assume a 1:1 interaction between a therapist and a client.

In practice, most clients are accompanied, at least to their initial interview, by a parent, partner or friend (sometimes all three). Service information leaflets often neglect to advise clients whether their companion can join them in the consulting room, creating the potential for an awkward first interaction with the therapist: “can my Mum / husband / friend come in with us?”

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Rules of thumb are dumb

Some rules of thumb are derived from experience, accurate or otherwise, (eg: the praecox effect) and some from hard research (eg: people with memory problems don’t admit to them), but all have a common flaw: even if true, they are both generalisations across a population and specific to the circumstances of their origin.

In an undergraduate lecture over twenty years ago, a senior Clinical Psychologist described the “praecox effect” (as in dementia praecox, or schizophrenia):

if, after having spoken to someone for half an hour, you have no idea what they’re on about, they’re schizophrenic

To an undergraduate struggling to cope with the complexities of psychology, psychiatry and mental health, any simple rule was welcome. Reading the literature on the high rate of psychotic diagnoses in immigrant populations, it didn’t take me too long to see the problems with this rule of thumb.

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