Working with Resistant Clients (In Employment Service Industry)

When working in the employment services sector, clients can be resistant to our information, advice, guidance and coaching. Sometimes the client stops progressing, sometimes they start going backwards in their development and this can be a very stressful situation. Fortunately, there are various effective ways of navigating these “stuck” scenarios.

Here are some indications that resistance may have gotten the better of you:

  • You feel like you are fighting and arguing with your clients. Many times you may have felt as if you were trying to convince your clients of something and not making headway.
  • Your clients are “Yes, but-ing …” your every suggestion.
  • You are sitting on the edge of your chair, leaning toward your client with your neck stretched out while the client sits there relaxed! Our posture can be very revealing with regards to our comfort with resistance.
  • You are working harder than your clients are. If after finishing the conversation, you have more work to do than your clients, then you should take a close look at what you are doing!
  • You are worrying more and carrying more tension about clients’ problems than clients are and sometimes it feels like you take your clients’ problems home with you.
  • You are feeling compelled to say “we” as you discuss client problems.
  • You dread the meeting before it begins and/or after it ends.
  • You feel stressed and drained in an unhealthy manner after the meeting.
  • You are feeling burned out with your work.

When you find yourself frustrated with a client’s lack of progress, read through this list and assess whether any of these ideas may be legitimate conceptualisations of underlying factors regarding lack of movement.

  • The client does not want to be there – is there another way to engage with the client instead?
  • The client is adjusting to the new situation, of actually talking to someone about problems, or of being in an open space discussing about their problems (ie., concern of privacy, sensitivity of their issues)
  • The client is reacting to the openness of the worker as you try to build rapport. Such openness may be interpreted by the client as very strange behaviour.
  • The client could be experiencing a high level of stress or in a distressed situation that they cannot express themselves (ie., domestic violence, undiagnosed mental illness, etc.)
  • There is an underlying fear associated with making new changes and adapting to new situations (ie., interviews, meeting employers, etc.)
  • There are negative feelings associated with shame due to the client’s perception or inability to resolve issues, or because of the social implications surrounding the issues (ie., finding and keeping employment)
  • A sign of social fear that emerges as a result of poor social skills.
  • A sign of passive-aggressive behaviour. The client may be angry with the worker or some other adult or authority figure such as Centrelink that the worker represents. This anger is expressed as resistance.
  • Resistance can be a personality style. Some people enjoy the battle of resisting. In such clients, the stimulation that results from arguing and controversy may reinforce resistant behaviour. They often switch positions if they find others agreeing with them in order to keep the stimulation going.
  • The client might have a coping strategy of avoiding personal responsibility and of gaining respect and sympathy from others. Hence, the client can be resistant in maintaining the ongoing relationship with support services.
  • Resistance may be a healthy response to a negative conversation. (ie. workers who lack empathy, dominate discussions, lecture to clients, move too quickly, or offer advice from a know-it-all stance will likely arouse resistance in clients).

Ultimately, all working relationships come down to the successful management of resistance, together with efficient communication and interpersonal skills. As a support worker, the way we approach clients should come from the perspective of being aware of some of the reasons for resistance and letting change occur as a natural result of the client exploring some new perspectives in his or her own world. 

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