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‘Rolling with resistance’: managing difficult client behaviours

Photo of a man with short dark hair wearing glasses and sitting facing a woman in the foreground, whose back is to the camera. The man is holding an open folder and writing notes, shelves of books in the background.

By: Leith Hillard

How can financial and therapeutic counsellors best support clients who are resistant to change, dealing with mental health issues, experiencing family violence or living with trauma? Treat them with ‘unconditional positive regard’. That is, offer them the support, acceptance and care that may be sorely lacking in their life.

This term, coined by US psychologist Carl Rogers, is at the heart of the approach advocated by Sophie Lea, a therapeutic counsellor and lecturer in the Master of Counselling at Monash University. From clients with distorted expectations through to those with magical thinking – ‘I’m here so you can fix me’ – Sophie discussed a range of approaches at a professional development workshop this month.

Aimed primarily at financial counsellors but with some therapeutic counsellors also in attendance, the workshop was organised by Financial Counselling Victoria in conjunction with the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation.

The foundations of effective counselling

Sophie opened by focusing not on clients but on the counsellor’s body language and vocal tone during the first minutes of a counselling session, which can have a powerful impact on how the relationship will evolve. Sitting squarely with open and relaxed posture and making eye contact, the counsellor can then work to ensure the client feels safe, seen and heard, and is soothed.

The counsellor can work to ensure the client feels safe, seen and heard, and is soothed.

‘Clients must feel themselves to be away from immediate danger and in a private space where they’re informed about consent, privacy and their rights,’ said Sophie. ‘You’re trying to get the rattling in their mind to quieten down, helping them focus and letting them know that you’re going to work on their financial situation together.’

It is also critical, from the start, to create a sense of hope, focusing on the client’s strengths and practical solutions.

‘You’re trying to build the client’s self-efficacy, which is their belief that they can accomplish a task, and get them into a state of workable collaboration,’ continued Sophie.

The challenge of change

Topics such as motivational interviewing, reflective listening and affirmation were covered, all swirling around the central challenge: the client’s readiness for, or resistance to, change. Do they have no intention of changing or are they taking action and maintaining their changed behaviour? Or have those healthy changes been interrupted by relapse?

While financial counsellors work within a counselling framework, the role is different from that of a therapeutic counsellor. To tackle resistant behaviour, a financial counsellor will refer the client to a therapeutic counsellor, to help them see that their behaviour doesn’t align with the common financial counselling end goal: to navigate their way through financial stress.

‘You’re inviting them to look forward and think about how life could be different.’
Sophie Lea, therapeutic counsellor and lecturer

There is usually a large gap between where clients are and where they want to be. ‘By encouraging clients to give voice to their reasons for change, exploring both the positives and the negatives, you’re inviting them to look forward and think about how life could be different,’ said Sophie.

Collaborating to support clients

Financial and therapeutic counsellors work collaboratively to support clients. By advocating to creditors on a client’s behalf, the financial counsellor can reduce the financial pressures and allow the client to focus on recovery with their therapeutic counsellor.

The client’s journey won’t be free of challenges, but by working with a financial counsellor and a therapeutic counsellor together, they can receive the support they need to identify sustainable outcomes.

However, Sophie acknowledged, ‘No matter what you do, some clients might still lose their house’.

With almost 30 years’ experience as a financial counsellor, workshop attendee Ian Liddell has seen this happen. ‘Yes, they might lose their house, but we can try to protect their equity,’ he said. Ian told the group he used to have a magic wand hanging on the wall, but always told clients, ‘It’s not working’.

‘Yes, they might lose their house, but we can try to protect their equity.’
Ian Liddell, financial counsellor

While facing their financial reality might be a daunting task for some people, financial and therapeutic counsellors provide a safe environment to bring them back into the present.

‘There are no easy answers,’ said Sophie. ‘Some clients may fall through the cracks, but others flourish.

‘Counsellors need to set boundaries and put their own safety and wellbeing front of mind. You work on giving glimmers of hope to your clients by affirming them and reminding them of their skills and successes. You need to do the same for yourselves. Affirm yourselves as committed, skilled and resilient.’

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