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Working with Resistant Clients: 5 More Tried and Tested Tips

Choose the right language and approach and you can respectfully bypass client resistance


When facing client opposition, an unexpected response from you can steer them in the right direction

“You ought to have your techniques so worded that there are escape routes for all resistance – intellectual, emotional, situational.”

— Dr Milton Erickson

“She hates me!”

That’s my thought. And if you could see the way she’s looking at me, I wager you’d think it too. I know contempt when I see it.

“Maybe she just hates what I’m saying...”, I self-soothe as I continue my introductory presentation. The other thirty or so students are engaged and happy enough; they seem to find what I’m saying reasonable. I try to focus on less homicidal-looking faces but hers has a supernatural power. My eyes stray back to her. And there it is again.

That look. Narrowed eyes, curled lip. “Have we dated in a previous life?”, I wonder. For a second a random image of Abe Lincoln settling down to watch ‘Our American Cousin’, his theatrical date with destiny, comes to mind.

This is years ago. I’m teaching an introductory hypnosis workshop. In general, people are eager, interested and open. Just not her.

As I’m speaking she interrupts. She announces that what I’m saying is nonsense (and I’ve barely even started!). She turns to the whole group now and announces that she’s a psychiatrist, a true professional. She then proceeds to list her professional qualifications and clinical experience, to which we all listen politely.

Truth be told, I feel so flummoxed, my ‘thinking brain’ has done a runner. But it’s about to get even worse.

From bad to worse

Next it’s time for me to ask for a volunteer for my first demonstration of a hypnotic induction. You can imagine my prayer, but the worst happens anyway. The psychiatrist puts up her hand. And no one else volunteers.

“In a million years, not you!”, I scream inwardly, as I politely rise and offer her the comfortable chair. She comes up and sits, not once smiling or taking her eyes off me; still not a flicker of warmth.

As we sit facing one another I feel like fleeing the scene. Maybe I could start a new life under a different identity in Guatemala? But my momentary stupidity still hasn’t quite run its course. I make my final mistake and ask:

“Why did you volunteer?”

I’m dimly aware of a collective intake of breath from the onlookers, the way the sea rushes out, exposing the delicate beach before the tidal wave comes crashing back in.

Again with the stony, withering look. Unblinkingly, my subject replies:

“Because I want to demonstrate to everyone here that hypnosis is a sham. It doesn’t work! I’m a psychiatrist [hadn’t she said that already?] with twenty years of experience. Hypnosis is not real! In all my professional experience I have never encountered it!”

I feel the ghost of Milton Erickson at my shoulder and I’m flooded with relief. I now know what I must do.

How to deal with client resistance

This woman isn’t a client – simply a demonstration volunteer (and she and I wanted to demonstrate two very different things). But sometimes clients can show, if not quite such antipathy, at least a measure of contrariness or ‘resistance’.

‘Yeah, but’ syndrome, as I like to call it, is part of the human condition.

Some people have a particularly strong case of it. Whatever you say to them, they will automatically reply with, “Yeah, but…”. Trying to give direct advice to such people is pointless. It’s like throwing a lifeline to a drowning man, only for him to argue with your choice of rope.

Contrary or resistant clients will automatically oppose your ideas and suggestions. This kind of resistance shouldn’t be confused with someone genuinely disagreeing with something you’ve said.

You can spot real unconscious contrariness when whatever you say (even if it’s what the client themselves previously said) is met with a “yeah, but” or its equivalent. Your best attempts at help are met with grim determination from your client not to be helped.

There is a video of me working with a classic resistant client in our online course on How to Stop Anyone Smoking. The way I helped her get out of her old habits and stop smoking was the very same principle I used to help the hostile psychiatrist in my workshop. I’ll describe this in a moment.

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I’ve written before about the importance of not taking this kind of automatic opposition from a client personally (yeah, I know, easier read than done). I’ve talked about recognizing what may lie behind the contrary behaviour. It may be the need to feel in control (ultimately, the need to feel safe), the need to derive a sense of status from all interactions, or simply the habit of tussling about everything.

Here are five general considerations when dealing with what seems to be resistance from a client.

1. Reframe the idea of ‘control’

If you suspect your client is concerned with ‘losing control’, you can talk about how you use hypnosis, coaching or counselling only to increase the client’s control and freedoms. We might talk about how the phobia or cigarette addiction or depression had been seeking to control the person and how hypnosis can help them become free.

So it’s not about me controlling you through hypnosis or therapy but rather us working together to stop the psychological difficulty in controlling things. Even if the client hasn’t said anything about the issue of control or power, if they are behaving in a power-grabbing way, I will often talk about the idea of control and what real control will look like.

In this way we can frame their need for control in such a way that it becomes aligned with their stated therapeutic goals. People have a right to resist, but they also have a right to get real help when they’ve asked for it. Getting that help may mean becoming genuinely free to choose what they want – which brings me to my next point.

2. Allow for any response with greater choice

When we hypnotize someone, or, in fact, do any form of psychotherapy with them, we really need to respect their freedom. People’s unconscious need for a sense of autonomy may feel greater than their need to overcome their problem. Even if that problem has a devastating impact on their life.

I may have the objective of getting my client to relax and go into hypnosis. But rather than phrasing my suggestions categorically to bring about my desired outcome, like this:

“You will become more relaxed and start to feel as if you are by the sea in your mind…”

I can free things up by covering all – or at least many – possible responses from my client, so they don’t feel so pressured to respond in the particular way I think is best.

So I might say:

“And you can relax with eyes open or closed, and I really don’t know whether as you relax pleasant thoughts of the beach might come to mind or maybe just the colours of some place else that you really enjoyed being, maybe outdoors or indoors… and as you drift into deep comfort… you might find that sometimes you’re consciously very aware and even analytical or that you forget to pay attention consciously and just enjoy the experience…”

Here we are giving them a sense of choice within the already limited frame of relaxing deeply and going into hypnosis. Their need to feel they have the choice is maintained in a beneficial and healing context.

Another way of doing this might be to say something like:

“And when you’ve started to control that formerly overpowering cocaine use I wonder how you will decide to use all of your newfound freedom…”

My strategy here is to use the language of control with the client, while linking it to their having more choice and control over what’s really been controlling them.

Our language is, of course, vital when helping clients transcend their self-sabotage in therapy.

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3. Use permissive language

When clients are resistant, they may be looking out for language from you that confirms their hidden bias that this is a confrontational tussle rather than a collaborative situation from which they can benefit.

To counter this, we can be directive in a way that comes across as the opposite. The key is using permissive language, such as:

“Perhaps…” “maybe…” “I wonder if…” “I really don’t know…”

And giving lots of ‘choices’, like:

“Maybe you’ll feel that relaxation in the hands first, or maybe the feet, or perhaps you’ll start to notice your breathing becoming a bit more like that ‘sleep breathing’ people do when they are starting to… sleep deeply…”

This gives the impression of being permissive (so as to allow for the client’s important need to feel autonomous) while smoothly directing everything towards deeper relaxation. I might say:

“And I really don’t know whether, perhaps, you’ll relax so deeply now… or maybe… just begin to feel so calm… in a moment or so… only you can know…”

I’m saying that I don’t know – but that they or part of them does know. I’m suggesting they relax while using a really permissive communication style.

In the video I mentioned earlier from the course on How to Stop Anyone Smoking, when the client tells me repeatedly at the end of the session, “I don’t smoke!”, I am careful not to take any credit for that.

I tell her: “You were a non-smoker when you came into the room today!” Why? Because I sensed that her need to prove me wrong about things was still quite strong. I didn’t want that need to interfere with her escape from cigarettes. Which leads us on to the next step…

4. Give credit to your clients

However wonderful your therapeutic skills, the real therapy is done by your client. We need to thank them, and give them the credit for what they’ve achieved. For example:

“Wow, I’m pretty impressed at how skilled you are at relaxing!”

Or:

“I just want to say thanks for being so committed to making these changes.”

Acknowledging who is really doing the work like this again gives back freedom, and a sense of capability and competence, to our clients. If they have any residual need to tussle with you (and remember, that need may be unconscious and only evidenced by their behaviour) then giving them the credit negates their need to resist you.

And, finally, this last step relates to my demonstration with the psychiatrist subject all those years ago:

5. Encourage the resistance, then direct it towards helping them

Resistance is an energy and a force – sometimes a really strong one. The woman in the video on stopping smoking says to me, “I don’t want to resist hypnosis.” I surprise her by responding that she should resist more:

“You need to resist much more than you have been doing.”

But then I empower her by linking her resistance to her goals:

“You can resist those hypnotic cigarettes.”

I encourage her to resist (and if she resists that idea then she is, of course, no longer resisting my overriding ideas) but link her idea of ‘resisting hypnosis’ with ‘resisting those hypnotic cigarettes’. You’ll recognize this as a kind of therapeutic double bind.

We do this because directly contradicting this kind of client will simply trigger the rubber band effect. The more you pull away from them, the more resistance builds.

The truth is that if we don’t resist their resistance… there is nothing in our message for them to fight against.

We should, in fact, encourage their resistance and then direct it. This thought leads me down the thread of time back to the day of the workshop.

Meeting her real need

My sceptical demonstration volunteer sits there. She’s told the workshop she doesn’t believe in hypnosis, and she doesn’t believe in me. She’s announced that she volunteered as a hypnotic subject to demonstrate to everyone here that hypnosis is a sham, not real. But what else has she said?

My mind is now in a calm state of hyperdrive. Is her need to make me look stupid? No, I conclude, surely she senses I can do that unaided.

Is it to prove something scientifically? No, I think again. Her style is way too emotional – angry, in fact. This is no scientific situation. Is her need to be seen as ‘the professional’? The one person in the room with all the credentials and professional prestige?

I feel I’m getting closer to her real motivation. I meet her defiant gaze and say:

“I don’t want you to close your eyes and… go into deep calming hypnosis… a second sooner than your unconscious mind lets you know that it’s professional enough to go into deep hypnotic trance for the professional development of everyone in this room, including you… your eyes will not close before your unconscious mind lets you know it has that kind of scientific, inquiring, professional capacity…”

She stares, as if stunned. I’ve suggested that it is okay not to go into hypnosis. It seems, in fact, as though I’ve said that I don’t want her to go into hypnosis. To resist going into trance might now seem like complying with me, and we know she doesn’t want that!

So I am not resisting her resistance. But I have also suggested, somehow, that real professionalism would be displayed by her entering deeply into trance. I’ve implied this in such a way that it’s hard for her conscious mind to get too involved.

On some level she gets my message that not working with me now would be unprofessional. Well, she started all this ‘professionalism’ business!

My language here is confusional (a tried-and-tested form of hypnotic language) so as to appeal to her unconscious mind, the part that flies free from lumbering logical constructs.

So, what happens next?

Going with the flow that’s been given to you

She continues to stare crossly at me, but I feel I can see this anger dissolving, even healing, before my eyes.

Now one eye starts to close – a purely unconscious response, so it seems.

For a few seconds, the other eye wavers between open, conscious awareness and hypnotic closure.

Then it too falls shut.

She quickly drifts into a deep and relaxing hypnotic trance. This professional psychiatrist, with more letters after her name than you could shake a stick at (which has always struck me as a strange expression), went on to display many hypnotic phenomena.

No one was more surprised than my subject when she resurfaced from trance ten minutes later. I thanked her, telling her the demonstration had been “a wonderfully professional demonstration and learning opportunity” for the whole group.

And she seemed happy. In fact, she seemed to go from one extreme – total scepticism – to the other, total enthusiasm. She went on to do our diploma course and sent me clients for many years. For me, this whole experience was an amazing lesson:

  • Keep calm and recognize the real need driving the ‘resistant’ behaviour.
  • Don’t resist the client’s resistance. Encourage it in such a way that you can direct it towards a good outcome for the client (in this case, for my subject and also for the other students actually wishing to learn about hypnosis).
  • And, more generally, never argue.

This may all seem a little too ‘right brain’ or intuitive to our Western, reductionist models of psychology. But this way of working is becoming more common and better understood.

For the remainder of the workshop, whenever I caught the psychiatrist’s eye, she lit up the room and my mind with her smile.

I was suddenly reminded of going to a new school as a small child and pretending I didn’t want to play with the other kids in case they wouldn’t accept me. My subject’s need to protect her standing had been met and she was now free to play.

I was also reminded of the words of Milton Erickson:

“The unconscious mind is decidedly simple, unaffected, straightforward and honest. It hasn’t got all of this facade, this veneer of what we call adult culture.”

Sometimes we have to respectfully remove the veneer to get through to the truth.

Learn more about the psychology of persuasion and gain the confidence to deal with resistant clients with our Precision Hypnosis Course. Read more about it and sign up to be notified when the course is open for booking here.

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Mark Tyrrell

About Mark Tyrrell

Psychology is my passion. I've been a psychotherapist trainer since 1998, specializing in brief, solution focused approaches. I now teach practitioners all over the world via our online courses.

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