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10 Tips for Client Engagement

Bill Eddy, LCSW, JD, CFLS, San Diego, California

couple_smarnad Clients today want to be positively engaged with their professionals and to play an important role, yet many of them tend towards negative engagement and many professionals are tempted to respond negatively as well—especially when they have “high conflict” clients. These tips can be used to help engage clients in thinking about problem-solving rather than reacting, whether you are a therapist or lawyer with an individual client, or a mediator with both parents. Judges and custody evaluators can use these principles to the extent possible, even when talking about past behaviour problems. By focusing clients on these simple steps for future problem-solving, some become more engaged and less defensive.
  1. Forget about insight

This is who they are and efforts to make them a better person with on-the-spot “constructive” feedback often creates more defensiveness and an unnecessary power struggle. Just focus on addressing what action steps to take now about the problems at hand.

  1. Focus on the future

Talking about a client’s past behaviour triggers defensiveness and resistance to change. As much as possible, it’s better to talk about desired future behaviour rather than criticizing the past behaviour.

  1. Communicate in ways you want your client to mirror

Researchers say that we have neurons in our brains which “mirror” the behaviour of others. So rather than mirroring their frustration, fear or anger, it’s better for us to act in a way that we want our clients to mirror us— especially showing them empathy and educating them, rather than showing anger.

  1. Teach clients to ask you questions

Rather than making brilliant decisions for our clients, we need to engage them in asking us questions as much as possible, to help them prepare to make proposals and decisions themselves.

  1. Teach clients to set the agenda

Whether you are meeting individually, in mediation, in a group meeting or otherwise, teach clients to think about and list items for the agenda. The more they are thinking about what to do, the less they are thinking about blaming and complaining.

  1. Educate clients about their choices and possible consequences

This approach keeps more responsibility on their shoulders and gets them thinking. Repeatedly remind them: “It’s up to you.”

  1. Have clients make lots of little decisions

Whether we are providing mediation, counselling, advocacy or judging, we need to give clients practice in making as many decisions as possible (e.g., who goes first, changing topics, when to take breaks, etc.)

  1. Teach clients to make proposals

Rather than taking the lead, we need to ask clients to form proposals and test them out on their lawyers, counsellors or others, to prepare positively for negotiations, rather than focusing on negative arguments about the past. This includes who will do what, when and where.

  1. Teach clients to ask questions about each other’s proposals.

Rather than quickly saying “No” to proposals, teach clients to ask questions to help them form their next proposals. This can turn an angry exchange into an analysis of what’s important to each party.

  1. Teach clients to reply to proposals by saying “Yes,” “No” or “I’ll think about it”

This encourages clients to stay focused on thinking about proposals and making new proposals, rather than just reacting to proposals. If a client says “No” to a proposal, then it’s their turn to make a new one.


Association of Family and Conciliation Courts:

Ask the Experts from the AFCC eNEWS: Guidance from Leading Family Law Professionals, Edited by Andrea Clark and Larry V. Swall (2015)