First impressions last… Making that first session count

Recently Nic and I had the pleasure of holding the first Australasian Training for the Developmental Model here in Auckland.

We had a heart-warming response to this inaugural “event”.  As we reflected on the experience, it drew to mind the importance of the first session; that unique opportunity to make a significant connection with and contribution to those we are meeting with.

This was one of the themes people responded to strongly in the training – the importance of making a powerful start in our therapy.  Over my years of practice, clients have also given me feedback about the importance of their first session, what was valuable to them, how anxious they were, how it felt like a big “event”.   I have consistently heard from their perspective it is not only helpful to have an empathic, supportive therapist in the room but also a leader who confidently takes charge, helps them manage the relationship tension and restores hope.

So we thought we could share a bit of our thinking on this with you all.  Starting well is something that is a good idea for all therapy but is particularly important when you are working with couples, who are often presenting in distress and feeling like the stakes are high.  In those first interactions there is an opportunity here to create hope, direction, relief  – a turning point of some kind that engages them.

From our point of view are at least three key aspects to this.

  • One is thinking carefully about your initial contacts, even before they arrive at your office.   What “climate” are you setting up? What expectations are you creating around therapy?  What impression will they form from their first contact with you?
  • The second is being mindful about the way you open the first session – making sure you shape that opening discussion constructively.
  • The third is finding ways to end the initial session on a positive note and it’s this we want to focus on in this blog

While there are many ways to end the first session well, it’s not likely to happen unless you plan for it and allow time for it.  So it’s important to have this in mind from the beginning of the session.

Some of the suggestions we had included:

  • Asking about when they fell in love or a time when the relationship was working really well – getting them to reconnect with the feelings that those memories evoke
  • Using what Ellyn & Pete call the  “Question of Attunement”: “What is one thing I can do today (or this week) that will make your day go a bit better or make you feel loved, valued or appreciated?”  It is informative (i.e. diagnostic) to see how people handle this question both in terms of whether they can self-define enough to ask for what they want and whether they have the capacity to be generous towards their partner.
  • Exploring a list of “20 positive behaviours” (you’ll have to do our training to get your hands on that 🙂 ) and having them choose one to focus on for the coming week
  • Teaching them Schnarch’s “Hugging Till Relaxed” or something similar that is a non-verbal way to connect – really good if you have a couple where one person feels at a disadvantage with talking about feelings etc.

If you have a favourite way to end a first session, please drop us a line in the comments section below – we’d love to hear how YOU do it too.

Paula Dennan