"Getting to Know You" - A Familiar Pattern of Sessions

In counseling there is normally a familiar pattern of sessions - Introduction, Information Gathering, Discussion, Conclusion and Homework! What follows is the framework for an Initial Visit, Middle Visit, and Final Visit.

Feeling anxious? Don't worry, the client is more afraid of you than you are of the client! :) What matters most of all is the the client gets to talk and talk and talk AND be truly heard!


Initial Visit Pattern

First impressions really are lasting impressions. It is important to be timely and friendly.

Introduction – the first 10 minutes

Greet the client warmly – smile and shake hands. Escort to your office.

Offer a chair and a drink of water.

Your client will be nervous – not knowing what to expect. So explain to her or him right away what she or he may be wondering about – briefly. Your credentials, the forms that will need to be filled out, the assurance of confidentiality, the duration of the visit, etc.

Don’t forget to assure the client that there will be time to find out what brings her or him in here. Given the amount of paperwork that normally has to be filled out, she or he will begin to question the value of this.

Information Gathering – about 20 minutes

Ask the client, “So what brings you in here today?!” If the person doesn’t know where to start, tell the client to “start anywhere.” Some clients give coherent stories, others give a laundry list of concerns. But generally speaking, some themes should keep coming up again and again. Take discreet one or two word notes; you will be able to review these shortly.

A successful first visit is one in which the client has done almost all of the talking – this is all about them!



Discussion / Counselor Input – about 10 minutes

This is your opportunity to provide input. To tell the client what you think she/he is saying and to develop a list of concerns. The client can then be asked if what you are hearing is what she/he is saying. Ask the client to rate the concerns from most problematic to least, and ask which one she/he would like to work on first. You may not have all the resources you need at hand – but you now know what you have to do some homework on!

I am a big fan of "mapping" as the first homework assignment - filling out a week-long time sheet where they can write down when the problem happens and what is going on at the time.

Conclusion – about 10 minutes

Assure the client that she/he can “do this.” If you honestly feel that client can't, this is a sign you need to refer.

It is crucial that the client have a printed copy of services available to her/him – especially of warm-lines and crisis services.

Make certain the client knows that she/he can always reach you – by answering machine and by email. That you will respond briefly, and the client can discuss the stated concern(s) at the next meeting.

End all counseling sessions on a positive note. The client should be able to list a few things that she/he has to look forward to over the next few days.

If the client seems to have nothing to look forward to, this is a red flag for suicide. You will need to ask her/him, “Are you thinking of suicide?” If she/he takes a noticeable pause before answering or says “Maybe” or “Yes,” you need to know the protocols of your organization for what to do when you suspect a client is suicidal.

Set the next appointment time and date.

End of Initial Visit Pattern of Sessions. Clicking on the link will take you to Sample Session One - Client Centered Counseling.


Middle Visit Pattern

If the client hasn't already, remind her/him to sign in with reception.

Introduction – the first 10 minutes

Greet the client warmly – smile (and shake hands if hand is extended or is appropriate.) Escort to your office.

Offer a chair and a drink of water.

Give the client the chance to get things off her/his chest before you move to info gathering. These concerns may be spurious – but may be pre-occupying. Or these concerns may form the major part of this session.

Explain how this second (third, etc.) visit will look. That you will review what happened last visit and what has happened since then. You will continue to work on current challenges as indicated last time – or others that may take precedent.

NB: If the client is feeling no better or in fact feels worse, this may be out of your scope of practice. Set up a referral now. It can always be canceled.

Information Gathering – about 20 minutes

Review what happened last time – to make sure you are on the same page. If there was homework – review it; if the homework was not done, ask why?!

Work with the primary concerns of the day.

As always, try to let the client do most of the talking. If she/he is avoiding talking about concerns, bring her/him back on track.



Discussion / Counselor Input – about 10 minutes

This is your opportunity to provide input. In fact you may have been already, but if you know you have reserved some time to reflect on what is being said, you will be less likely to interrupt, to talk.

Note: After the initial or second session, the counselor-client interaction may become more informal and more direct. This is fine - you can be friendly and professional at the same time. But remember, you are not the client’s friend. Most professional associations do not endorse counselor-client relationships outside of the counseling setting, or any behavior – in our out of the workplace - which may violate professional boundaries.

Conclusion – about 10 minutes

Restate briefly what has happened and what the client is hoping to achieve – getting approval at each assertion.

Again, assure the client this is “doable.” If this is beyond your scope of practice, you need to refer NOW.

Homework of some kind is important The other 23 hours of this day and the rest of the days in between, you aren’t there. Becoming well is ongoing activity.

NB: Check to see if the client did book or have the health assessment. If not, have her/him book it using the phone in the office.

End on a positive note!

Set the next appointment time and date if it has not been prebooked.

End of Middle Visit Pattern of Sessions. Clicking on this link will take you to Sample Session Four - Solution Focused Counseling.


Final Visit Pattern

There is really is no such thing. Clients often drift off after a session or two. Also, even if you have seen the client on numerous occasions – she or he may need to come back. This ending may be more like a vacation break.

Introduction – the first 10 minutes

Greet the client warmly – smile (and shake hands if hand is extended or is appropriate.) Escort to your office.

Offer a chair and a drink of water.

Give the client the chance to get things off her/his chest before you move to info gathering. These concerns may be spurious – but may be pre-occupying. Or addressing this could take up most of this session.

Explain how this “final” visit will look. That you will review what has happened thus far and look positively toward the future.

Information Gathering – about 20 minutes

Review what happened last time – to make sure you are on the same page. If there was homework – review it.

Work with the primary concerns of the day. In a “final visit”, the client may express concern of feeling orphaned.

As always, try to let the client do most of the talking. If she/he is avoiding talking about concerns, bring her/him back on track.



Discussion / Counselor Input – about 10 minutes

This is your opportunity to provide input. Hopefully by now the client is very good at coming up with her/his own strategies.

Conclusion – about 10 minutes

Restate briefly what has happened over the past few weeks and what the client has achieved.

Assure the client that he or she can “do this.” It is crucial that the client have a printed copy of services available to her/him – especially of warm-lines and crisis services.

Make certain the client knows that she or he can always reach you somehow – for example, by email or by sending a letter. Chances are they won’t “hound” you – but they may very well send you a thank you note.

As always, end on a positive note. The client should leave able to easily the list the good things in her/his life.

End of Final Visit Pattern of Sessions. Clicking on the link will take you to Sample Session Nine - on Letting Go and Closure.


To understand is to perceive patterns. - Isaiah Berlin

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