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3 Tips for Working with Resistant Clients as a Counsellor

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If you are considering a counselling career, the right training program can set you on-track to help clients overcome their personal obstacles to wellness. Sometimes, clients themselves can be resistant to making the changes necessary for achieving their goals.

According to Dr. Clifton Mitchell, counselling professional and renowned resistance theorist, a knack for managing resistant clients is a much needed and often overlooked aspect of the counselling profession. By learning to manage resistance at a wellness college like Rhodes College, you’ll be equipped for this important task.

Here are 3 ways today’s counsellors work effectively with resistant clients.

1. Using Counselling Training Skills to Recognize Resistance

What does resistance look like? According to counsellor Norman C. Gysbers from the American Educational Resources Information Center (ERIC) Digest, there are three common ways a client may demonstrate their resistance. (Gysbers, 1999)

  • Fear of Counselling: A client may be resistant to meeting up with counsellors and participating in the counselling process. They may miss sessions and avoid complying with a counsellor’s action plans.
  • Fear of Discovery: Resistance often manifests from a client’s own fear of progress, change, or discovery. They may demonstrate this by remaining silent or passive in their counselling sessions, or even terminating their counselling prematurely because they fear dealing with deep and important issues.
  • Fear of Taking Responsibility: A client prone to making excuses is demonstrating resistance. Gysbers cites this definition, originally featured in a Higgins and Snyder study, stating excuses are “explanations or actions that lessen the negative implications of a client’s performance, thereby maintaining a positive image for oneself and others.” (Higgins and Snyder, 1988)

In counsellor training at Rhodes College, students develop a firsthand understanding of how acceptance of responsibility is the best way forward toward physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual wellness. Our experiential learning program facilitates each student’s own personal transformation, helping them learn to take responsibility for themselves and to recognize when others are avoiding taking responsibility for their own actions and behaviours.

Counsellors learn to acknowledge resistance manifested in a variety of ways

Counsellors learn to acknowledge resistance manifested in a variety of ways

2. Focusing on Aspects of a Client’s Resistance that Are Within Your Control

Counsellors too must take responsibility for their actions toward resistant clients. According to Dr. Mitchell, many counsellors forget that they themselves can play a role in creating resistance in their clients.

Dr. Mitchell believes resistance is “created when the method of influence is mismatched with the client’s current propensity to accept the manner in which the influence is delivered.” In this way, the resistance is borne of the relationship between the client and the counsellor, not the client alone.

To effectively manage resistance, it’s important not to blame a client for their resistant behaviour, but to evaluate and optimize your own actions in ways that help to alleviate it. You may discover yourself promoting resistant behaviour by presenting clients with challenges that are too complex, using insensitive language, or doing what Dr. Mitchell calls “over questioning”—pushing clients too hard on particular psychological sore spots.

“There is always a reason the client is responding the way they are,” Dr. Mitchell explains. “If what you’re doing with the client is not working, then do something else because your interaction is creating resistance.” (Mitchell, 2007)

3. Cultivating a Compassionate Attitude in Counsellor Training

It can be challenging for counsellors to remain sympathetic to clients who continually resist progress. Genuine compassion remains essential to a counsellor’s role, however, and must be preserved throughout each client/counsellor interaction. It is much easier for clients to pull away when they don’t feel welcomed, trusted, or accepted by their counsellors.

A counsellor demonstrates a warm, compassionate attitude towards her client

A counsellor demonstrates a warm, compassionate attitude towards her client

In counselling and life skills training at Rhodes College, students learn to put aside judgement and approach interactions from a place of sincere empathy. This allows student counsellors to demonstrate support by remaining open to their client’s thoughts and feelings.

Resistant clients pick up on this respectful, professional open-mindedness. In turn, this can help clients open up to new challenges, trust in their counsellor’s expertise, and take brave steps past resistance towards real, transformative change.

Are you interested in pursuing a counselling career of your own?

Visit Rhodes Wellness College to develop your counselling skills in Vancouver.


Gysbers, Norman C. (1999). Working with Resistant Clients in Career Counselling. American Educational Resources Information Center (ERIC) Digest. Retrieved from http://www.counseling.org/resources/library/ERIC%20Digests/99-10.pdf

Higgins, Raymond L., & Snyder, C. R. (1998). Excuses: Their effective role in the negotiation of reality. American Psychological Association Psychological Bulletin, 104, 23-35. doi: 10.1037/0033-2909.104.1.23

Mitchell, Clifton W. (2007). Effective Techniques for Dealing with Highly Resistant Clients. Johnson, TN: Perfect Paperback.

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