3 easy psychotherapy techniques that make your difficult client more receptive

Receptive Change
Difficult clients need to be 'primed' for change

People aren’t usually willing to abandon their ideas or habits just because you say so. That makes your job as a therapist or life coach even harder. But with these psychotherapy techniques, you can ‘prime’ your clients so they’re more receptive and willing to change.

When I first started out as a therapist I would sometimes run into ‘difficult’ clients – people who just didn’t give the ‘right’ answers to my therapeutic questions. I remember one man I saw who had recently lost his job, and was suffering from depression and anxiety. The more I pressed him to consider what he wanted for his future, to imagine what he would be doing when he was feeling better, the more he shrugged, sighed and said “I just don’t know!”

It’s interesting to consider what was going on here. I was asking a man who was in a depressed and pessimistic state of mind to create goals for himself. Not surprisingly, he wasn’t able to give very inspiring answers! How many times have you tried to persuade a client to do something, or wanted to help a friend to see their problem from a new perspective, only to find that they sighed sadly, said “Yes, but…”, and started to tell you why your ‘helpful suggestion’ wouldn’t work for them? Is there anything you can do to stop this from happening?

Yes. It’s a ‘friendly persuasion’ technique called ‘priming’.

Put people in the right frame of mind before you try to persuade them to do something

The psychologist John Bargh did some amazing research into how people’s behavior can be influenced by seemingly innocuous events. In one experiment disguised as a linguistics test he asked people to arrange apparently random words on a table into sentences. However, if just a few of the words related to rudeness, e.g. ‘obnoxious’, or ‘pushy’, the participants were much more likely to interrupt someone in the corridor after the test (which was what the experimenters were actually interested in). If a few of the words related to politeness, they would wait much longer before interrupting. None of the subjects had any idea that arranging the supposedly ‘random’ words had affected their behavior.

A surge of similar studies has shown how the images we see, the topics that come up in our conversation, even objects and smells around us, have subtly persuasive effects on our subsequent choices and attitudes,even though we are not conscious of any connection between the thing that ‘primed’ us and our later choices.

Here are three subtle yet powerful ways to use this advanced ‘friendly persuasion’ technique:

Whatever you want someone to do, whether it’s to think more optimistically about their future or to be more determined about going to the gym, before you ask them to do anything:

1. Talk about universal examples of the response you want them to have.

Tell them stories of how people found optimism in the direst of circumstances. Talk about the determination involved in everyday life, emphasizing how even coming to see a therapist takes a real determination to make a change.

2. Steer the conversation towards topics they feel resourceful about.

Chat about their hobbies, their interests. Show interest in their achievements and the people they care about. By doing this, you reinforce their strengths and lift their mood, so priming them to be more optimistic and determined when you ask them about their goals.

Reinforce their strengths and lift their mood, priming them to be more optimistic when you ask about their goals

3. Pepper your language with positive words

Use words like hope, resolve, passion, commitment, strength. Remember that words like depression, despair, loneliness etc can still be used initially to ‘match’ the client’s state or language, but using negative words for a whole hour or more will prime them (and you!) to go into those states. Persuasion works both ways.

By taking these steps in advance, you will have ‘prepared the ground’ for your suggestions, and you’ll get noticeably better responses from people.

These persuasion techniques can be used for any communication goal, from eliciting hypnotic phenomena to cheering up a friend. If your experience is like mine, you’ll find that the more you use them, the less you seem to run into ‘difficult clients’, because you’re consistently getting people into states where they can properly take on board your ideas and put them to good use.

  • Nesrin Akman

    Good article. What struck me is that those three steps are exactly what we do when we are bringing up our children. I guess, it means when we act out of love, we instinctively know how to work with people.

  • Barry Thain

    Bargh’s work has been questioned by the rest of the academic community, and rubbished by most of it.

    • Rebekah

      Hi, Barry. :-) That’s interesting. Do you have a link where I could read more about this?