How to Build Rapport with Clients

Rapport is probably the most crucial part of the therapy process. Without rapport, we can’t effectively work with and treat our clients. In this article I’m going to talk a little more about what rapport is and how to build rapport with clients.

What is Rapport?

rap·port/raˈpôr,rəˈpôr/

  1. a close and harmonious relationship in which the people or groups concerned understand each other’s feelings or ideas and communicate well.

Rapport is something that is vital in the therapeutic relationship. I love this definition of rapport- it’s essentially what all social workers try to do. We need to establish a relationship and gain our client’s trust so that we can move on to understanding them. Without this basic principle, we can’t begin to help our clients heal.

Rapport building starts with the first interaction

How to Build Rapport?

Building rapport will look different for every client and every population. Playing a game may be a great way to build rapport with a child but an adult may look at it as a waste of time. As a social worker, it’s up to you to navigate what will work best and use your clinical judgment to determine whether your attempt at rapport building is working.

So HOW do you build rapport?

Be honest!

People can tell when you’re being genuine so make sure that you’re being true to yourself. If a client comes to see you and feels like you have no idea what you’re doing, they’re likely to tune out quickly. If you’re honest with what they can expect and what the therapy process will look like, you have a better chance at keeping them engaged and earning their trust.

Ask them questions!

Even court-ordered clients or clients who are in therapy against their will can gain something from therapy. Ask them what they want to get out of meeting with you. Maybe it’s just to check a box for their case plan. Fine! Roll with it and set goals with them for how to get there.

Start where they are!

I know we hear this a lot in school but it’s true! Don’t try to fix things for them, let them tell you the problems they are having and what they think they should do. Remember, we aren’t here to give advice. If they only want to focus on something that one thing that seems insignificant, who cares? Once you’re able to help them with whatever they feel is a priority at the time, they’re more likely to allow you to continue to help them with the more pressing issues.

Use active listening skills!

I find myself doing a lot of summarization and reflections when I’m first meeting with a client. This helps show them that I’m listening to them and, more importantly, understanding them. Ask open-ended questions and really make it your mission to learn about how the client ticks.

I know sometimes we have to complete assessments and paperwork during initial sessions. But don’t make it all about checking boxes on an assessment. Have some sort of meaningful conversations with them throughout the assessment where you can.

Stay engaged!

I hope this one is obvious but you want to let your clients know that they have your full attention. Put your phone on do not disturb and stay engaged with them the entire session. If you have to have your phone on your for some reason, explain this ahead of time so they don’t think you’re ignoring them or that you don’t care. Once they feel like you aren’t listening, your relationship will be MUCH harder to fix (if it is salvageable). 

Things to Consider

Some other things to think about when it comes to building rapport are who the client is, why they’re coming to therapy, and their communication style.

Building rapport with an adult may look very different than building rapport with a child but the end goal is the same: establish a healthy relationship where the client feels like they can trust you.

When meeting a client for the first time try not to have any expectations. Sometimes we are told from coworkers or referral sources different things about our client. Yes, that can be valuable information, but make sure you aren’t establishing a bias before even meeting the client.

Ask the client why they’re in therapy. Depending on the setting you’ll get a variety of answers. They may know exactly why they’re here or they may say they have no clue. Figuring out what the client’s perception of therapy is can be extremely important in building a relationship with them. If they don’t know why they’re in therapy, talk about it! Explain how they got referred- was it from a probation officer, court, did their parents make them come? Helping talk them through why they were referred will help them trust you.

When talking to a client, don’t assume things about them. I’ve made this mistake before and man, did I make some people mad. Ask questions if you don’t understand something and reflect things back to your client. This helps to make sure you’re both on the same page.

Resistant Clients

Guess what? Sometimes clients don’t want to come to therapy! Crazy, right!?

Well, no. Not really. This is one of my favorite types of clients to work with though. Walking them through the stages of change is so rewarding.

Side note before we get started: please please please don’t call your clients resistant in session notes. They aren’t resistant, they just haven’t made it through the stages of change yet. It’s not the client’s fault. When we use words like resistant, we’re labeling the client as “bad.” No client is bad.

Clients who are resistant to therapy can be challenging to say the least. That’s when we pull out every motivational interviewing skill possible from our toolbox. Find out what their goals are and figure out how you can help them with those- it doesn’t matter what they are. Maybe they came to you for substance abuse treatment but the only thing they can identify as a problem for them right now is housing. Great! Start with housing, you can get to the substance abuse.

Chances are if you have a client who doesn’t want to be in therapy, they’ve lost a lot of their power and ability to make their own choices. They may have to meet with you to get their child back or to stay out of jail or to please their parents so try to make them feel like the time they spend with you is beneficial for them. Over time, as you help them meet their goals that they set, they’re more likely to let you continue helping them with other things.

Relationships Matter

Think about how you would want someone to treat you when it was your first time in therapy. It can be really scary for some people to reach out and go to therapy to begin with. Your goal as a therapist is to make them feel safe and secure. The first thing you need to do in order to establish that trust is to build rapport. Tell a joke, help the client loosen up, and make sure you are listening to them. Everything else, all the “hard stuff,” will come out over time. Focus on them, in that moment, and make sure they feel heard and cared for by the time you leave the session.

Building rapport with clients can be easy if we just pay attention to them. Dedicate your attention to them, reflect back what you’re hearing, and ask clarifying questions. You’ll establish a great therapeutic relationship in no time!

What types of things do you do to build rapport with clients? Drop ideas in the comments below!

Leave a Reply