Resistance Clients: We’ve All Had Them; Here’s How to Help Them
Clifton W. Mitchell, Ph.D.
If you inwardly cringe when a client becomes resistant to the counseling or psychotherapy you’re providing, take heart. Encountering resistance is likely evidence that therapy is taking place. In fact, several studies indicate that successful therapy is highly related to increases in resistance, and that low resistance corresponds with negative outcomes (Tracy & Ray, 1984, as cited in Bischoff & Tracey, 1995; Tracey, 1986, as cited in Bischoff & Tracey, 1995; Hill et. al., 1992, as cited in Bischoff & Tracey, 1995). These researchers concluded that there is perhaps an upper level of resistance (too much) as well as a lower level of resistance (too little) that are counter productive. Thus, the encountering of resistance is likely evidence that therapy is taking place. More specifically, getting to moderate levels of resistance is important to successful therapy, especially when followed by effective approaches and techniques.
The most effective therapists are prepared to encounter their client’s resistance, they know how to deal with it, and how to help the client break through it. They do this by understanding what resistance represents psychologically, and they have developed a way of conceptualizing and reacting to the resistance that allows them to remain emotionally comfortable.
We can deal with highly resistant clients effectively when we: learn to avoid common errors that create or foster resistance; know how to recognize when resistance has gotten the better of us; and when we are able to consider the positive side of resistance.
Resistance has been defined from a number of perspectives. Traditional definitions have their roots in Freudian theory and usually place resistance “inside” the client. Such definitions view resistance as representing the client's efforts to repress anxiety provoking memories and insights (Otani, 1989), or efforts to fight the therapist’s influence. For example, Bischoff & Tracey (1995) defined resistance as "…any behavior that indicates covert or overt opposition to the therapist, the counseling process, or the therapist’s agenda" (p. 488). Although common, such perspectives leave therapists lacking control and too much at the mercy of other influences when attempting to foster change.
The most insightful and useful definitions of resistance come from the social interaction theorists. From this perspective, resistance occurs as a result of a ''…negative interpersonal dynamic between the therapist and the client" (Otani, 1989, p. 459). Or, as Strong and Matross (1973) more specifically state: "Resistance is defined as psychological forces aroused in the client that restrain acceptance of influence (acceptance of the counselor's suggestion) and are generated by the way the suggestion is stated and by the characteristics of the counselor stating it" (p. 26).
Here, resistance is seen as something that results from the interactional style of the counselor and the client. The counselor allows the client to form a mutual communication pattern that hinders counseling and the change process. This view of resistance forces the counselor to remain aware of what he/she may be doing that actually promotes resistance. The great benefit of this perspective is that changing your interaction style results in changing what has been deemed resistance. This perspective empowers therapists in managing resistance.
Common Errors Therapists Commit That Foster Resistance
● Whose Goal Are You Working on?
When we experience resistance, we say that the client is “not going anywhere.” We feel stuck. Central to these statements is the question: Where is the client supposed to be going? The client is showing no progress toward what? One of the primary therapist errors that causes resistance is failure to establish a mutually agreed on objective. If you and your client are not in agreement about a desired outcome, problems are inevitable. Further, you and your client should be able to clearly state the mutually agreed upon objective. If a mutually agreed upon objective has not been established and a reasonable time has been devoted to establishing rapport and understanding the client's situation, then it is critical to focus session time on the creation of such an objective.
The next time one of your colleagues complains to you about a particularly difficult client who does not want to change, ask, "What is the goal?" If he/she begins stuttering or goes into a vague, rambling explanation, you will know that a mutually agreed upon goal has not been established. Then inquire, "If your client was asked what the goal is, would the client agree and could he/she state it?" It is mind-boggling how many times this essential therapeutic component has not been formulated.
Such goals do not have to be complex. For example, a simple goal may be to spend at least 15 minutes each day in a discussion with your partner about their day before any other activities are begun. Or to plan one night a week where you and your partner do an activity together. Such goals could be smaller components of an overall objective to increase communication and connection in the relationship.
•The Who, Where, When of it All
We are not helpful to our clients until we have reached a point where problems can be defined around a specific person, place, and time. David Burns, author of Feeling Good, taught me this concept and I have yet to prove it wrong. Sometimes the person, place, and time are obvious—it is a spouse, at home, when the children need disciplining, or a boss, previously dealt with at work, in the past, Or the problem is the client’s traumatic experience at an earlier age with a family member. Sometimes it is the client and you, dealing with the conflict, at the present moment in the session!
Regardless of the case specifics, the person, place, and time components are present in solvable problems. Being clear on the person, place, and time of your client’s problem, brings clarity to the process and avoids ambiguity that hinders progress.
For example, a client who enters therapy with a goal to “not be nervous” has yet to reach a point in problem clarity where help can be provided. The brief therapists would say that this problem has not been defined in manner that makes it “solvable.” As a result of the therapeutic discussion, such a vaguely defined problem would be transformed into a more specific goal such as to be “calm, relaxed, and assertive when discussing needed changes in the department with the boss.” With this level of specificity, the definitive steps can be taken toward resolution. Skilled therapists most often move the discussion to a level of specificity almost without conscious awareness. However, clarity in understanding the essential elements of solvable problems can enhance the process. It is also quite helpful to beginning therapist who have difficulty figuring out exactly what they are trying to do.
•When the Solutions Are Terrifying
We all know the familiar axiom that our clients have the solution to their problem inside, and it’s our job to help them find it. What experienced counselors know is that the reason our clients come to therapy is not because they don’t know the solution to their problem, but because they find the solutions terrifying (Walter & Peller, 1992). From this perspective, one of the therapist’s primary jobs is to normalize the fears surrounding the solution and support clients’ courage to move forward in midst of the perceived impending terror. In cases where fear of the solution is great, focusing too strongly on the solution may increase fear. In such instances, focus on dealing with the fear that accompanies the solution before moving the focus forward toward actions to be taken.
For example, I once counseled a woman who repeatedly discussed how much she hated her husband and how badly she wanted a divorce, but she was not proceeding with the divorce. As we addressed the issues further, we discovered she was filled with fear about the divorce—fear because she and her children were financially dependent on her husband, fear because she felt she had no marketable job skills, fear because returning to school for training was costly and scary. At this point the counseling session changed from focusing on whether she should divorce to the more pressing issue, addressing the fear that accompanied the divorce.
•The Columbo Technique
An interesting paradox occurs with highly resistant clients. The greater the resistance, the more likely it is that they are refusing to consider any of a host of possible solutions. Typically, as we become aware of the myriad possible solutions to a client’s problems, we become more certain that our knowledge can help them. As a result of such certainty, we begin talking more and more as an expert regarding the problem at hand. But here’s the catch: The more of an expert you become, the more you give the client something definitive to resist against and the less psychological freedom clients have to explore possibilities on their own. Thus, being knowledgeable about obvious solutions may actually create resistance. A sure sign that you have become too much of an expert is getting, "Yes, but …" answers.
The way out of this situation is to reverse the paradox. The more obvious possible solutions become, the more naïve, inexperienced, and uncertain your displayed attitude toward these solutions should be. The principle at work here is that your client cannot be resistant if there is nothing to resist. My students have dubbed this approach “the Columbo technique” because it is similar to the approach taken by fumbling television detective Columbo as he hoodwinked his suspects into revealing key information necessary to solving murders. Columbo always apprehended his suspect by constantly appearing to not understand the basic components surrounding the murder and by asking questions that forced the suspect to clarify his or her actions. Although Columbo always appeared to be two steps behind the murderer, in reality he was two steps ahead.
A therapist I know explained to me that he used to get sucked into lecturing, argumentative discussions with alcoholic clients that expounded to them the many reasons not to drink. After learning the above point, he now avoids such vain, pointless conversations. Recently, in a first session with an alcoholic client he inquired as to his reasons for drinking. Expecting an flood of reasons not to drink as a response, the client proceeded to build a case for drinking in which explained how drinking help him to relax, deal with stress, manage his chronic pain, etc. After hearing the strong case for drinking, the therapists stated that he had no knowledge of any pill or therapeutic discussion that could substitute for the benefits received from continuing to drink. Almost immediately the client began to state something to the effect, “But, you don’t understand, I have a $50.00 a week alcohol bill that I can’t afford, my wife is threatening to leave me, my kids don’t respect me, and I really don’t like myself for drinking.”
In this instance, in order not to provide something to resist against and avoid the typical “Yes, but…” response, this therapist became uncertain and naïve as to any solutions to the drinking problem. By becoming naïve to the obvious, he quickly received, from the client, motivations to stop drinking and the discussions proceeded from there. This therapist explained to me that, in the past, in such situations, he would have immediately provided information and knowledge for the client to resist against. However, he has since become much wiser and goes to great lengths to avoid providing a position for his resistant clients to oppose.
•Rogers Is Still Right
Many experienced therapists become lax in consistently showing empathy throughout their sessions. When we conduct sessions excessively loaded with questions without a foundation of understanding, our clients lose the feeling of psychological support necessary for them to proceed safely. An essential component to breaking through resistance is maintaining a foundation of understanding through a dialogue that engages the client’s experience with empathic comments.
An equally important reason to consistently use empathic statements is to get clients in touch with the emotional energy they need in order to initiate change. People do not change because of the logic of the situation, people change when they have an emotionally compelling reason. Yet, because emotions are often linked to uncomfortable feelings, most clients have blocked awareness of or are in denial of their own emotions. Empathy is the tool that fosters the emergence of emotionally compelling reasons for change and, thus, it ignites and fans the fires of change.
I have often dealt with people who desire to quit smoking. One of the things I have learned is that people very rarely quit smoking because of the possibility for cancer, emphysema, heart attacks, bad breath, high costs, etc. People do quit when these issues directly effect them as a result of a medical checkup or in some other manner. I once dealt with man desiring to quit smoking that I initially struggled to get to the underlying emotional reason behind this life change. He appeared reluctant to offer up or get in touch with the real reason for breaking habit. However, through continuing to respond in an empathic manner and to pull to the forefront all of the emotions I was sensing, I struck gold when I indicated that I sensed he was a very responsible person who cared for children. From this revelation, the underlying force for his habit change emerged in the conversation: His wife was pregnant! He was going to be a father! Now, he had an emotionally compelling reason to change. Therapist seeking to mine the compelling reasons for change should consistently use empathic statements that include specific reference to the emotions present. This is the most efficient avenue to discovering the emotionally compelling reasons that fuel the desire to change.
•“Baby Steps” Are No Joke
A considerable amount of resistance comes from poor timing. If you find that you are offering explanations before the client is ready to accept them, confronting the client too soon, or moving too fast, then slow your pace, back up, and take smaller steps. Therapy is clearly one area of life where it pays to slow down to go faster. In fact, taking small steps is often a central part of effective therapy, including brief therapy.
In order to not rush your client, I suggest you constantly ask yourself, “What could I say that might move my client the smallest step possible toward where they need to be to resolve their problem?” This approach solves two problems for the therapist.. First, it does not push the client and, thus, create resistance. In fact, if you slow down to the point that you are “behind” your client, then you can actually have the client pulling you along toward their solution. Second, this approach takes an enormous amount of pressure off of you. The task at hand becomes manageable, and you will find you are more able to remain balanced in sessions. Learning and practicing this skill can be an enormous stress reducer for therapists.
For example, to ask a person in denial over the loss of a loved one to fully accept the loss may be too threatening or inconceivable to them. This is simply too big of a step for the client to take at the moment. To ask the same client to come up with ways to honor their loved one in his or her absence will likely appear much more palatable. In this way perhaps some of the underlying emotions related to loss, meaning, closure, guilt, etc. can begin to be addressed. By suggesting smaller, more acceptable steps in moving through the grieving process, the therapist circumvents the resistance that the client would have experienced as a result of moving too fast toward closure.
Recognizing When Resistance Has the Upper Hand
Significant client resistance can make psychotherapists feel insecure, incompetent, frustrated, hopeless, stressed, and burned out. When these feelings are indirectly communicated to clients, more resistance occurs, and a negative spiral develops. Less experienced therapists are most vulnerable to the negative effects of resistance. One of the keys to dealing with resistance is to recognize that resistance is not personal. Resistance is a fact of therapy. Watch for signs that resistance has gotten the better of you:
•You feel like you are fighting or arguing with your client. Many times you may have felt like you were trying to
convince your client of something and not making headway.
•You feel stressed and drained in an unhealthy manner after a session. •You are working harder in your session than your client is. If, after finishing your sessions, you have more work to do
than your client, then you should take a close look at what you are doing. Something is likely amiss.
•You are feeling burned out with your work.
The Plus Side of Resistance
To fully understand resistance, the many positive benefits of resistance need to be examined. Resistance has a purpose, otherwise, it would not exist. When we understand the many benefits of resistance, we begin to realize that it is just as essential to mental health as it is a problem in therapy. The following purposes and benefits of resistance are compiled from the writings of Anderson and Steward (1983) as well as my own analysis.
•Without resistance all social systems would dissolve into chaos and confusion, changing with every new idea
•Resistance is what prevents us from buying every product presented to us in commercials and infomercials. •Without a certain amount of resistance, we would have no stability, predictability, security, or comfort. •Resistance provides us with a sense of being right. Can there be a sense of right and wrong without an awareness of
the opposition of one position against another? Without a resistance to certain positions?
•Resistance can be a sign of good mental health and judgment; people often want new alternatives to problems before
giving up old ways.
Understanding resistance—including its possible positive purposes—and knowing effective means for dealing with resistance is not merely intellectual enrichment. This knowledge can reduce therapist stress and burnout.
Resistance in therapy is a natural, necessary part of every client's problem. It is neither good nor bad, and the effective therapist neither abandons, rescues, nor attacks clients because of their resistance. Resistance is the problem at hand. All clients are ambivalent about change, that’s why they have come to therapy. If people were not resistant to change, they would simply adopt new behaviors at will. However, such is not the case. People resist difficult change because of the underlying conflicts. The therapist’s job is to provide an environment where internal conflicts can be addressed.
When we have a plan for dealing with resistance before we encounter it in therapy, we won’t get trapped in a futile battle with our clients. Instead, we will be able to remain objective and establish a clear perspective about what is occurring. Hopefully some of the techniques for responding to resistance that I’ve suggested here will help you help resistant clients and keep yourself grounded in the process.
And if you find yourself feeling discouraged by resistant clients, think about this: Which is more troubling —a client who does everything you suggest, or one who takes time to assimilate and adjust to new ideas?
Clifton Mitchell, Ph.D. travels the country providing seminars on effective methods for treating highly resistant clients. He is also an associate professor in East Tennessee State University's Counseling Department. He can be reached at 432- 854-9211.
Could It Be Something Besides Stubbornness?
Have you considered any of the following reasons clients might be resistant to therapy? Resistance could be a sign of:
—Fear of failure. Client does not know how to be a client and has a high need for success or perfectionism and thus, resists as a result of the fear of failure.
—Fear of taking risks. Client sees counseling as a highly risky behavior and client is actually very conservative in his or her life approach.
—The client enjoys manipulating others and by not "moving" or responding therapeutically, they experience power in recognizing that they can manipulate the therapist.
—Passive–aggressive behavior. Client is therefore angry with the therapist or some other adult/authority that the therapist represents (transference). Thus, resistance could be a reaction to authority figures in general.
—Feelings of shame that exist because the client has not been able to resolve the issues (Teyber, 2000) or because of the social implications of the issues.
—Jealousy or desire to sabotage the therapy relationship. "If I get better, then I will not be able to come to these sessions and get all of this attention and maintain my relationship with my therapist." In this instance, an unhealthy dependence has developed between the client and therapist.
—An indication that the client is psychologically drained and does not have the energy to take on the tasks that will lead to change. Here, the therapist needs to back off and allow for replenishing of energy. Take a therapeutic break.
—A personality style. Many people instinctively respond to change with resistance. However, some people enjoy the battle of resisting, the stimulation of arguing, and controversy long beyond the initial reaction to change. These people often switch positions if they find others agreeing with them to keep the stimulation going (Kottler, 1994).
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Strong, S. R., & Matross, R. P. (1973). Change process in counseling and psychotherapy. Journal of Counseling
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Teyber, E. (2000). Interpersonal process in psychotherapy: A relational approach. Belmont, California: Brooks/Cole.
Walter, J. L, & Peller, J. E. (1992). Becoming solution-focused in brief therapy. New York: Brunner/Mazel.