The Art of the First Session: Getting It Right From the Start
By Robert Taibbi
Q: I know that the first session with new clients is crucial, especially when doing brief therapy. How can I make the most of it?
A: Like it or not, many of us are brief therapists by default. Stats tell us that clients go to an average of five to eight therapy sessions, but most of them go only to one, making it essential that we hit the ground running.
We all know the essential tasks of the first session in any kind of therapy: building rapport and a sense of collaboration, assessing and diagnosing, and formulating and offering a preliminary treatment plan. The tasks in brief therapy aren't different, but they're done in less time--meaning that therapists need to get to work immediately, and there's little leeway for mistakes.
I find it useful to think of the first session the way a family physician might when a client shows up with an ailment. Basically, there are four goals to meet: getting on the same page, changing the emotional climate, clarifying the link between problems and personality, and offering a clear treatment plan--and if you miss any one of them, the client probably won't return.
Getting on the Same Page
It's useful to set the stage for brief therapy by letting clients know a little about your approach during the first contact--that you think brief, that you focus more on the present than the past, and that you give behavioral homework. You may tell them a little about your experience to convey a sense of your competence. Once they come to the session, like any therapist, you help them feel welcomed and safe. You can do this by listening carefully to their story and being empathic, subtly mirroring their body position or language to help foster rapport, and clarifying their expectations, either to reinforce them or to suggest alternatives.
But you can't just listen for 50 minutes and then thank them for coming, take out your appointment book, and say, "Same time next week?" Not in the age of Dr. Phil. You must shape the process by offering direction and leadership, not just responses. This gives clients the crucial sense that you know what you're doing and where you're going with them.
However, the most important part of getting off on the right foot is what I call "tracking the process like a bloodhound." This is where it's easy to get lazy and lose focus. Clients instinctively want to talk content--to dig through their pile of stories and sort through the heap of facts. Of course, to some extent, that's important, but you want to focus on what you see that clients usually don't: what's happening moment-to-moment in the room. Whether you make a comment or an interpretation or provide education, you need to watch closely how the client responds. Make sure you notice the nod of the head or other indicators of solid agreement. If you hear a "Yes, but . . ." or a lukewarm "That makes sense," or observe eyes glazing over or a frown, don't move ahead. Stop and address the problem that's right there in the room: "Hmmm, you're making a face. It seems like you may see it differently."
Gently clarify your thinking, connect your thoughts to the clients' most pressing concern, and make sure they're in sync with you throughout the session. If they are and you can offer a clear treatment plan, you're off to a good start. But if not, they'll balk or seem uncertain about setting up another appointment. Then and there, you need to realize that, somewhere along the line, you fell out of step.