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Building rapport is paramount in many professional associations, but it takes on an elevated level of importance in therapist-client relationships. Trust, respect, compatibility, and emotional engagement are the building blocks of a successful bond in a therapeutic setting—and one of the keys to a successful outcome for both parties.1

Whether you’re exploring careers in the field of psychology or have just started an independent practice, you may already know this intuitively. Yet, how to create an unshakable client rapport may be more elusive.

Fortunately, there are several tried-and-true practices and techniques you can work on to build good rapport.

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The Importance of Rapport Building

Why is building rapport with clients crucial? It’s widely understood that the relationship shared between a therapist and their client is the single most significant factor in a therapeutic setting, regardless of the modality.2,3

This notion may seem modern, but the notion has its roots in the Freudian era, when the “godfather” of psychoanalysis posited that a solid collaboration was not only necessary but also imperative.4 The idea was refined at the tailend of the 1970s when scholar Edward Bordin distilled it into the “therapeutic alliance.”

The therapeutic alliance is based on three primary elements:

  • A mutual understanding of the client’s goals
  • A consensus on the tasks involved
  • A progression of the relationship between the therapist and their client, with the underlying knowledge that engagement on the client’s part will bring them closer to their ambitions

Put simply, the stronger the relationship between you and your client, the bigger the emotional payoff.5

Establishing Trust and Security

The therapist-client bond depends on assurance and safety, as it naturally paves the way for self-disclosure and the positive change that may arrive with it. To this end, it’s vital to:

  • Demonstrate proficiency – Echoing one of the tenets of the therapeutic alliance, building trust is done in part by ensuring your client believes you can help them reach their objective—whether that’s smart coping strategies for stress or ways to manage grief and diminish isolation. You can demonstrate competence and encourage mutual trust by speaking with confidence and organically showcasing your knowledge, of course. But proficiency also relates to what you accomplish prior to working with clients—through education, training, and experience.
  • Create a safe space – Engaging in CBT, EMDR, and other forms of therapy involves a significant amount of vulnerability—something that’s difficult to come by if the patient feels threatened in any way. In short: Safety is fundamental.6 A safe space can be taken literally—meaning, you must furnish your client with a physical area that’s private, comfortable, and free from distractions. And yet, it’s also metaphorical.7 Through setting boundaries, offering reassurance that your client will be protected from damaging comments, and providing compassionate, non-critical feedback, your client may feel secure—and the relationship you have may deepen.

Enhancing Therapeutic Outcomes

A productive therapist-client collaboration relies on the bond you build, yes, but also on what you bring to the table. This includes:8,9

  • Displaying cultural competence (i.e., awareness of and sensitivity towards a client’s gender identification, sexual orientation, and cultural makeup)
  • Tailoring your approach to each individual’s personality, attachment style, and needs
  • Utilizing evidence-based methods and techniques

Effective Strategies for Building Rapport

What exactly do these principles and aspirations like “emotional engagement” look like in practice? Below you’ll find several tactics that can improve your interactions.

Active Listening and Empathy

Therapy is often sought out because a person wants to feel seen, heard, and understood by a non-judgemental third party.10 To phrase it differently, they feel they might benefit from a professional’s presence.

The success of this rests on being an active, empathetic listener. This can be achieved by:11

  • Permitting your client to speak freely and without interruptions.
  • Supplying your client with a recap of what they have said to ensure you heard them correctly—and to confirm that you were listening with genuine interest.
  • Refraining from leaping to conclusions or offering your opinion without your client’s request or permission

Some therapists and schools of thought believe that voicing your own experiences can be effective in projecting empathy. It essentially says, I’ve been there, and I understand

That said, this should only be employed if it’s a) infrequent, b) welcomed, and c) doesn’t pivot an undue amount of attention away from your client.12

Nonverbal Communication

Providing nonverbal encouragement, such as nodding, maintaining eye contact, and smiling is another strategy that may prod your client to remain active in the session and continue engaging.

Asking Open-Ended Questions

Asking open-ended rapport building questions, as opposed to “closed” questions that can be answered in a few words, may prompt your client to delve deeper, reflect on their thoughts and behaviors, and potentially, alter their perception of an event or set of circumstances.

According to a 2020 study published in Frontiers in Psychology, this “cognitive-reflective” approach of urging clients to open up generally leads to improved treatment results.13

Use Mirroring

“Mirroring” refers to reflecting your client’s emotions in the name of establishing a meaningful connection through:14 

  • Appropriate facial expressions
  • Body language 
  • Posture
  • Inflection

It also refers to verbal mirroring, or rephrasing what your client has said.15 This demonstrates that you’re actively listening and compassionate towards their circumstances. It can also be a powerful way to clarify details that may be vague to you (but ultimately indispensable).

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What to Say and What to Avoid

Seeking out and grasping each new client’s preferred communication style is one of the golden tickets to a collaborative, strong relationship. This may influence the form or forms of therapy you might recommend—and how you might connect with your client in general. 

One of the best ways to navigate this is to be direct when you’re first getting to know your client. For example, you could ask:

  • “Have you been in therapy before? If so, what did or did not work for you?”
  • “Would you like my advice today, or would you prefer that I just listen?”

Both of these questions can guide your approach to the dialogue you share and help you figure out what you should and should not say. 

The key is to tune in to your client’s individuality. Some might be verbose and emotionally charged. Others might be quiet and withdrawn. Adopting specific techniques for developing rapport with each person you encounter and figuring out what to do when a client shuts down in therapy may lead you to a more positive relationship.

That said, there are several things you should avoid:16

  • Oversharing about your personal experiences (as well as your thoughts and feelings)
  • Revealing signs of boredom, overwhelm, or distress—even if the session is challenging
  • Refusing to listen to feedback from your client
  • Saying anything that suggests you feel superior to your client and their experiences
  • Offering unsolicited advice that has more to do with your situation and belief system than theirs—and that isn’t in their best interests17

Encouraging Expression and Validation

Giving validation and encouraging emotional expression are two other central ingredients in building rapport with clients. It shows clients that you:18

  • Acknowledge and accept where they’re coming from, even if you don’t endorse their viewpoint 
  • Are curious about the why behind their thoughts and emotions, from a neutral standpoint
  • Do not shame them for feeling or thinking the way they do

How can you express this? By identifying your client’s emotions, asking objective, non-accusatory questions, and providing them with statements such as “I understand why you felt that way.”

This doesn’t mean that you must tolerate emotional outbursts that threaten the safe space you’ve created or exceed your boundaries. Nor does it mean you must validate everything a client says, such as an off-color joke, or a personal affront. In these cases, it’s important to focus on staying calm and de-escalating the situation.19 At other times, it may be necessary to seek guidance from your colleagues.

Avoiding Judgment and Assumptions

The issue of safety we’ve emphasized throughout can be spoiled if you, as a therapist, express criticism or jump to assumptions about your clients, verbalizing them or exhibiting them through:

  • Inappropriate facial expressions like frowning 
  • Body language 
  • Other nonverbal clues, such as shaking your head in exasperation

Maintaining a judgment and assumption-free space for your clients means refraining from saying anything that could be interpreted as reproachful.

Explore Alliant International University’s Psychology Programs

How to build rapport with clients is a question that continues providing answers the longer you work in a therapeutic setting and the more attuned to clients you become. In the end, it’s one of the myriad benefits of working directly with people and empowering them to heal.

If you’re interested in learning more about the heaps of rewards offered to mental health professionals, Alliant International University is a superb way to start. Alliant offers a number of psychology certifications and programs to prepare you for the rigors and joys of working in the field of psychology.

Master’s in Clinical Counseling

A master’s in clinical counseling at Alliant International University provides the education, training, and experience required to become a mental health counselor and assist those with challenges ranging from depression to anxiety. 

Master’s in Marriage and Family Therapy

Keen on working with couples and families? Pursuing a master’s in marriage and family therapy might be right up your alley. Through hands-on training and courses in cultural competence, Alliant can prepare you to make a meaningful difference in the lives of others.

Doctorate Programs in Psychology

Alliant also offers three doctoral programs in psychology: clinical psychology, marital and family therapy, and organizational psychology. No matter which route you choose to explore, the education Alliant offers will help you make a lasting—and profound—contribution.

Reach out to us today to discover what awaits in the realm of psychology. 


Sources: 

  1. Savita Malhotra,  S.J. Ackerman, J. Copeland, R. Elvins, et al. “The Therapeutic Alliance between the Child, Parents, and Health Professionals.” Handbook of Clinical Neurology, September 22, 2020. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/B9780444641489000…. Accessed November 12, 2023.
  2. Scarvaglieri, Claudio. “First Encounters in Psychotherapy: Relationship-Building and the Pursuit of Institutional Goals.” Frontiers in psychology, December 15, 2020. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7769839/. Accessed November 11, 2023.
  3. Kadur, Jennifer, Jonas Lüdemann, and Sylke Andreas. “Effects of the Therapist’s Statements on the Patient’s Outcome and the Therapeutic Alliance: A Systematic Review.” Clinical psychology & psychotherapy, March 2020. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7187422/. Accessed November 11, 2023.
  4. Steindl, Stanley. “The Interplay between Therapeutic Relationship ... - Wiley Online Library.” Journal of Clinical Psychology, April 6, 2023. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/jclp.23519. 
  5. “Better Relationships with Patients Lead to Better Outcomes.” Monitor on Psychology, November 1, 2019. https://www.apa.org/monitor/2019/11/ce-corner-relationships. Accessed November 11, 2023. 
  6. Podolan, Martin, and Omar C G Gelo. “The Functions of Safety in Psychotherapy: An Integrative Theoretical Perspective across Therapeutic Schools.” Clinical neuropsychiatry, June 2023. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10405669/. Accessed November 11, 2023.
  7. Team, BetterHelp Editorial. “Designing Your Therapy Space.” BetterHelp, October 19, 2023. https://www.betterhelp.com/advice/general/how-to-design-your-therapy-sp…. Accessed November 11, 2023.
  8. Clarke, Jodi. “What Makes for Good Therapeutic Outcomes?” Centre for Clinical Psychology Melbourne, July 22, 2023. https://ccp.net.au/what-makes-for-good-therapeutic-outcomes/. Accessed November 11, 2023.
  9. “Why We Need More Culturally Competent Therapists.” NAMI, July 10, 2020. https://www.nami.org/Blogs/NAMI-Blog/July-2020/Why-We-Need-More-Cultura…. Accessed November 11, 2023. 
  10. Strauss Cohen, Ilene. “6 Truths about People Who Go to Therapy.” Psychology Today, July 23, 2023. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/your-emotional-meter/202307/the…. Accessed November 11, 2023.
  11. Grande, Dianne. Active listening skills | psychology Today, June 2, 2020. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/in-it-together/202006/active-li…. Accessed November 11, 2023.
  12. Bray, Bethany. “Counselor Self-Disclosure: Encouragement or Impediment to Client Growth?” Counseling Today, July 15, 2022. https://ct.counseling.org/2019/01/counselor-self-disclosure-encourageme…. Accessed November 11, 2023.
  13. Kleiven, Gøril Solberg, Aslak Hjeltnes, Marit Råbu, and Christian Moltu. “Opening up: Clients’ Inner Struggles in the Initial Phase of Therapy.” Frontiers in psychology, December 15, 2020. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7769763/. Accessed November 11, 2023.
  14. Karth, Melinda. Nonverbal mirroring and the challenge of eating disorder therapy, August 21, 2022. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-neuroscience-eating-disorde…. Accessed November 11, 2023.
  15. Knol, A. S. L., Mike Huiskes, Tom Koole, Reitske Meganck, Tom Loeys, and Mattias Desmet. “Reformulating and Mirroring in Psychotherapy: A Conversation Analytic Perspective.” Frontiers, February 10, 2020. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.00318/full. Accessed November 11, 2023.
  16. “Boundaries and Red Flags in Therapy.” Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/therapy/boundaries-and-red-fl…. Accessed November 11, 2023. 
  17. “Better Relationships with Patients Lead to Better Outcomes.” Monitor on Psychology, November 1, 2019. https://www.apa.org/monitor/2019/11/ce-corner-relationships. Accessed November 11, 2023. 
  18. Kristalyn Salters-Pedneault, PhD. “What You Can Do to Help Others Feel Validated.” Verywell Mind, November 14, 2022. https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-emotional-validation-425336. Accessed November 11, 2023.
  19. Clay, Rebecca A. “Coping with Challenging Clients.” Monitor on Psychology, July 2017. https://www.apa.org/monitor/2017/07-08/challenging-clients. Accessed November 11, 2023.

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