Welcome back, friend.
Today we’re going to talk about How To Have A Great First Session.
In the last issue I told the story of how my first client went. I was scared, overwhelmed, and felt like a fraud. But I made it through, and my client stuck around.
After 3 years of seeing clients, plenty of First Sessions with new clients, and learning from my mistakes I feel a greater sense of ease. I still get nervous before new clients, but it isn’t nearly as crippling.
So, what changed from then to now? What have I learned? And what can you take into your first session and many sessions after?
Well, settle in for a moment. Grab some coffee or tea or whatever your favorite beverage of choice is. And let’s dive in.
The Problem: Getting in the way of connection
From my own experience, and hearing from that of other therapists, here’s what I’ve found has gotten in the way of having a great first session with clients:
- Overwhelming nerves
- Too busy thinking to listen
- Trying to offer solutions too early
- Hyperfocus on self instead of client
- Overwhelmed with information client is presenting
- Not being yourself, trying to convey persona of professionalism – stiff, cold, rigid
These are all common issues that every beginning therapist deals with, so don’t freak out if you relate to any or all of them.
Now, we’re not trying to have a “perfect” session with our client (whatever that would mean anyway). We’re just trying to make a connection. A genuine, warm, human connection.
1. Give yourself permission to not know
The key to clinical presence is to be open.
The key to clinical attunement is to be willing to say, “I don’t know” and “tell me more.”Dr. Daniel Siegel – The mindful therapist
One of the most common assumptions and expectations we as beginning therapists have is that we need to know everything and have all the answers. This tendency needs to be gently recognized, labeled, and left to wait outside of the door as we meet with our client.
A couple of problems arise with this assumption
- It’s ridiculous. No one knows everything
- It’s irrelevant. Clients don’t want answers. They want change. And canned, easy answers rarely lead to change.
- It’s not genuine. Clients can sniff inauthenticity a mile away, so trying to fake having answers is going to be a massive red flag and hurt your relationship.
I had a client who was going through a messy divorce. They were trying to make the best of a complicated situation and I felt for them deeply. I noticed myself wanting to help by providing advice on the many details that were arising.
At the end of a particularly heavy session that left the both of us in a dazed silence, I simply expressed what I was feeling: “Wow. This is all so complicated, isn’t it?”
I could see tears well up in my client’s eyes and they said, “Thank you for saying that. I’ve been so overwhelmed and felt like I should have all the answers to this. It feels good knowing you’re just as perplexed as me. It feels like some permission I’ve needed to have for a while now.”
Give yourself permission to not know. It spills over onto your clients too.
2. Give yourself time to center
We are often the greatest obstacle to meaningful connection with our clients. And that tends to start with what’s going on inside
It’s as if there is a hurricane of distractions inside of us, and what the client is trying to convey and who they are, easily gets swept up and away.
As best you can, you want to quiet and calm your mind, heart, and body.
- Getting as good sleep the night before as you can
- Familiarizing yourself with where you will be seeing your first client
- Bring something with you that grounds you to security, your true self, a feeling of home and belonging (I have a watercolor painting at my desk that my wife painted for me)
- Give yourself 15 minutes beforehand to attend to your emotions. Name them, note how they are trying to help you, see how they do not define you but are merely experiences
- During your session, allow time to note your thoughts and feelings, and then bring your attention back to your client
3. Give your client authentic, attuned, and compassionate attention
Session 1 is about creating genuine connection, building trust, and lighting the flame of hope again.
You can’t do this by providing quick answers and solutions. Instead, you need to establish who you will be for them:
- You will prove trustworthy.
- You will attune to their feelings
- You will seek to understand them
- You will accept all of who they are
- You will show up for them consistently
- You will respond with compassion and care
Providing hope means being a beacon of hope and that is conveyed more in how you show up rather than what you know.
One final thing: sometimes your first client just isn’t a good fit.
And that’s ok.
If it doesn’t go well, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad therapist.
Well, that’s all for today.
Until next time,