Thursday, March 19, 2015

Help! The Client Likes Me!

An updated version of a classic blog post for you. Enjoy! Originally Published 4/8/11

Q: What do I do if a client expresses attraction to me in session?

First, don't freak out. I know that's the temptation. In fact, that's what I did the first time this happened to me. I stammered a little, and I think I said "thank you", which wasn't the best thing I could have done. But it was awkward. It was really, really awkward.

I have a philosophy that every feeling we (the counselors) have in a counseling session means something. This situation, trust me, will cause you to have feelings, so I ask you, what could your feelings in this situation mean? First, here are some common feelings you might find yourself having:
  • Awkwardness
  • Concern about ethical issues
  • Reciprocal attraction
  • Fear/Vulnerability
  • "Stuck" (What do I do next?)
That's a lot of feelings! And any one of those makes it really hard to think of what to do in the moment. That's why it so good that this question came up. It's one of those that's really best to address ahead of time if you can.

Of course, with so many different directions, it's hard to declare just one definite answer. So don't try. Just think through as much as you can. A rule of thumb: if you have any reciprocal attraction, hear warning bells. You need to immediately refer and consult with a colleague to work through those feelings. You'll be getting yourself in dangerous territory if you do not! 

If it's not a mutual attraction, realize getting you to refer to someone else might be the point of expressing the attraction. The first time this happened to me, it was on the first session with a guy who was a serial adulterer and didn't have a lot of respect for women. His wife wanted him to come to counseling, and he had no use for it. It is my belief that he knew he would fluster me by bringing that up. He wanted to get off of the topic at hand, which was his problems. Unfortunately, it worked. But now, at least, I know better than to have it happen again.

Everything that the client does is a clue...

Changing the relationship dynamic is a way that clients can try to manipulate you or change the power dynamic in an unhealthy way. Remember that the power dynamic should be different but balanced - you should not feel victimized by the client any more than they should by you. 

As with all client-counselor interest conflicts, you can get through this by remembering that you are in charge. You're the counselor, and you have the capability to deal with anything that comes your way. (Even if it might take a little fumbling....) You are the professional, and you will get through this in a professional manner. In the moment, ask yourself "why?" and remind yourself that you can handle it. Even though it seems so scary, attraction to the counselor, in the end, is just another symptom for you to explore. 

Have you ever had a client express attraction to you? If so, how did you deal with it? (PLEASE REMEMBER  - DO NOT SHARE specific details about a client or a counseling situation such that the client could possibly recognize themselves. That is not ethical and it leaves you legally liable.)