Improve your Human-service Effectiveness

First Contacts

 What Typical Clients
 and Providers Need

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Experts Council


The Web address of this two-page article is

Updated  October 05, 2015

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      This article is one of a series on effective counseling, coaching, and professional therapy with troubled persons, couples, and families. This article offers suggestions for effective first contacts with people seeking  (a) non-clinical and (b) clinical help. This article assumes you're familiar with these foundation articles,,,

      "Effective" human service (help) occurs when all people involved get their current primary needs met well enough, in a way that's acceptable enough to everyone.

  Why Do People Avoid Asking for Help?

      Kids and adults seek (or accept) help when they feel currently or chronically too uncomfortable about something physical or psychological, and...

  • they're not clear on their current needs, or

  • when their current needs conflict, or when

  • they lack necessary knowledge, skills, and resources; and/or when...

  • they're unaware their true Self is disabled, and...

  • they equate asking for help as "weakness;" and/or...

  • they're distracted, overwhelmed, and/or unfocused, and when...

  • they're unaware of these blocks and/or don't know what to do about them. 

Can you think of any other reasons people seek help?

+ + +

The article offers...

  • perspective on productive first contacts between clinicians and these clients;

  • options for increasing mutual first-contact satisfaction;

  • recommended clinician questions, depending on the type of client; and...

  • options on ending the first contact effectively.


Filling Everyone's Needs

      A need is a discomfort that causes human thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. A first contact between people is effective if each person (a) fills their primary needs well enough (b) in a way that feels good enough to everyone involved. In first contacts between divorcing-family or stepfamily clients and a counselor or therapist, there are common and unique needs to satisfy, compared to other first contacts.

Typical Client Needs

      If you've consulted a professional clinician, recall what you needed and how you felt during and after the first contact. Compare those to the premises below. When typical self-referred co-parents first contact a counselor or therapist, they need to...

  • feel genuinely respected (worthy and dignified) and empathically valued and heard by the clinician and each other; and to...

  • feel initial trust in the clinician's competence, objectivity, and concern; and co-parents need to...

  • feel hopeful that the clinician can help them solve their presenting problems in a safe-enough, affordable way. The intensity of this need depends on whether someone feels there is some kind of crisis or not; and typical clients need...

  • information about...

    •  the clinician's qualifications (training, background, personal and professional experience, attitudes, etc.) and...

    • the clinical process - e.g. time and availability constraints, duration, costs and insurance coverage, service limitations, and who is responsible for what during the work.

  • Co-parents referred by family court also need to comply with judicial orders and perhaps their attorney's and/or a mediator's suggestions or requests; and...

  • Any children present usually need (a) to feel safe and respected, and to clearly understand (b) why they're there, (c) who the new person/s (clinician/s) are, and (d) what's going to happen in this and any future meetings. And participating clients need...

  • to agree on who's going to do what after the first meeting ends - e.g. "homework," negotiate another appointment, research some information, invite another family member, etc.

      Some wounded co-parents (i.e. one or more anxious subselves) may also need to control a session's process and/or focus ("We're not here to talk about that.") Other co-parents need the clinician to empathically direct the meeting's agenda and process. Client participants may have a values conflict on this.

Typical Clinician's Needs

      For a mutually-satisfying first contact, the clinician needs to be aware of, respectfully assert, and fill her or his needs as well as the client's. Typical clients and service-providers aren't used to consciously ranking the provider's needs equally with the client's needs, which risks subliminal or overt dissatisfaction and semi-conscious resentments.  

      This clinical model proposes that effective professional service over time is most likely if the client family members and clinician/s respect their own and each other's needs equally. Clinicians are most likely to adopt an "=/=" (mutual-respect) attitude and assert their own current needs if their true Self leads their personality. How do you feel about this? Have you ever reflected on what you need when meeting a new client (or any person)?

      During the first contact with a new client, typical therapists, life-coaches, and counselors need to...

  • feel undistracted, competent, respected, and heard,

  • help participating clients feel welcome and safe,

  • get agreement on ground rules ("I'm going to ask that only one person talk at a time, OK?") and any limits for the meeting ("Let's shoot for ending by 3:50"),

  • learn the client spokesperson's initial (presenting) needs,

  • begin to assess the client-family's (a) nurturance level, (b) problem-solving style and effectiveness, and (c) unspoken (primary) needs,

  • answer the client's questions to their satisfaction,

  • decide whether the client's apparent needs match the clinician's knowledge and skills well enough, and if not, make an appropriate referral;

And clinicians also need to...

  • comply with (a) ethical standards of professional conduct and (b) any employer's policies related to the meeting, and to...

  • negotiate the next contact, if any; and to...

  • respect others' needs by ending the meeting on time.

      Each case and meeting will have a unique mix and ranking of these client-clinician needs. The first contact is most apt to be mutually satisfying if the clinician is steadily aware of both sets of needs and the ongoing meeting process.

First-contact Suggestions

      In some ways, meeting divorcing-family or stepfamily client adults for the first time is no different than any new client - and it differs in several important ways. Every clinician develops their own way of conducting the first meeting with such clients, so compare the following options to your way. Asterisked items apply to any client session, not just the first one: 

      1*) Authorize yourself to lead the meeting, and be clear on who's responsible for what - e.g. are you responsible for "fixing" this client family, or are the family adults? This is most likely if your true Self is guiding your personality.

      "Lead" includes welcoming and introductions, setting and monitoring the agenda and process, interrupting and refocusing the clients as needed; summarizing key information, guidelines, and goals; agreeing on a next appointment and/or referral/s, suggesting any "homework," providing any relevant handouts or other resources; and ending the meeting on time. 

      2) Meet with co-parents first. Premise - any client-family's nurturance level is strongly shaped by the co-parents' relationship, personalities, priorities, and communication patterns. Meeting adults first (before any kids) allows the clinician to focus more clearly on assessing these vital variables, and avoids information overload.

      If co-parents are strongly conflicted, meet with them individually first, to assess the stressors, hear both sides, and decide if and when to meet jointly. If the presenting problem is a minor child's welfare, meet with the adults first anyway, unless it appears that the child is in significant danger now.

      3*) Expect a mix of concurrent presenting problems with divorcing-family and stepfamily clients. Also expect that the co-parents can't identify, rank, and systematically fill the primary needs causing their problems. Too many concurrent problems (unmet needs) becomes a problem by itself (overwhelm and confusion) - specially if one or more co-parents are ruled by false selves.

      A useful first-meeting intervention is to listen empathically, use open-ended questions to elicit infor-mation, summarize the clients' presenting problems, negotiate a ranking of them, and agreeing to focus on one or two at a time.

      4) Expect the client spokespersons to not know the five hazards proposed by this model. In the first contact, qualified clinicians can begin to alert client adults to the hazards and how they may relate to the presenting problems. This may motivate help to justify Doing so begins to justify the co-parents' need to study and apply these eight Lessons.

      5*) If two or more client family members are present, arrange the seating so all participants can have comfortable eye contact vs. sitting side by side. This implicitly invites the clients to consider whe-ther they do that in important communications outside the session. Option - ask "Is it your habit to seek good eye contact in important conversations?"

      6*) Early in the meeting, check the attending clients for distractions - e.g. "As we sit down together, what are you each aware of?" / "What are you (each) feeling now?" / "Where is your mind focused now?" / "What is your partner thinking and feeling now?" / "Is anything physically or mentally distracting you (your partner) from being fully here now?"

      Co-parents' verbal and non-verbal responses to questions like these suggest many things, including their abilities to (a) focus on the present moment, (b) describe their current thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations clearly, and (c) empathize with other  family members accurately.

       If a co-parent says or implies "Yes, I am distracted, by (something)," (a) ask him or her to rank the intensity of the distraction on a scale of 1 to 10, and (b) decide whether to make reducing the distraction the first agenda item. Options:

  • ask "What would help you reduce that distraction now?"; and/or...

  • use this as a teaching opportunity by asking the co-parent/s something like "Is it your habit to ask each other about distractions, or tell each other if you're distracted in important conversations?" 

      More suggestions for successful first contacts with typical divorcing-family and stepfamily clients...

      7) After welcoming and seating the client/s, introduce yourself if you haven't already or if there are new people present. Assume one of their needs is to learn "Who are you, and are you qualified to help us (can we trust your competence)?" Include summary information like this (or pass out a summary handout and invite any questions)...

  • Your clinical credentials and years of experience;

  • Whether you're a bioparent and/or a stepparent, and if so, your kids' genders and ages;

  • Whether you've (a) been divorced or widowed, and/or (b) lived in a stepfamily as a child or adult. If you're re/divorced, you can frame that positively by saying something like "I have learned a great deal about healthy stepfamily relationships since then (if true!);"

  • Whether you've been a therapy client yourself, without going into details - " I know what it feels like to sit where you are."

  • How experienced you are with divorced-family and/or stepfamily clients, and whether you've had any special training in working with them;

  • Hilight any areas of expertise that you feel will reassure and/or alert the co-parent/s - e.g...

    • reducing (vs. healing) the psychological effects of significant childhood abuse, abandonment, and major neglect in self-motivated adults ("Grown Wounded Children," in this model);

    • helping motivated clients think, communicate, and problem-solve more effectively;

    • healthy grieving, including spotting and freeing blocked mourning;

    • re/marital counseling;

    • addiction assessment and management, including codependence;

    • assessing what individual minor children need, and empowering co-parents to fill the needs effectively as nurturing teammates;

    • dealing effectively with local family-court, marriage mediators, law-enforcement, and child welfare systems on behalf of client families;

    • identifying and reducing common barriers  to co-parenting teamwork  among separated or divorcing co-parents; and...

    • helping courting and committed stepfamily co-parents and supporters learn how to spot danger signals and make wise courtship decisions, and to proactively evolve high-nurturance (step)families together.

      8*) Disclosing relevant personal information during a session - specially the first contact - can have several benefits. It can (a) make the clinician seem more "human" and approachable, and (b) reassure clients that the clinician can probably empathize with and validate their complex situation (if true). Con-flicted stepfamily co-parents often feel unsure if they're "normal" or "crazy" because of the webs of alien family role and relationship stressors they're experiencing.

      A clinician's anxiety or reluctance about disclosing limited appropriate personal information to clients may indicate false-self wounds, over-rigid boundaries, a graduate school dictum, a supervisor's value, an agency policy, or a mix of these. Another trust-building option is to invite any brief questions about the revealed information.

      9) Option - frame your clinical relationship by asking a teaching question like "I'm your employee, and you're my boss/es. I'm working for your (nuclear) family, so I'm eager to hear what my job is. What do you need from me now?" This clinical model proposes that relationships exist to fill mutual needs, and that "problems" are unfilled needs. Many clients are resistant to "neediness," and seldom think to ask this vital question of each other.

      10*) As you know, face and body language and speech characteristics "leak" personal feelings and attitudes. These and the language you use in the first contact may cause clients to assume your atti-tudes on some sensitive topics like divorce, affairs, cohabiting, child neglect, addictions, pre-marital sex, court battles, and remarriage.

      Their assumptions can affect how fast and how well they accord you initial trust and respect. For example, if you feel stepfamilies, stepparents, and/or stepkids are innately inferior, deficit-based, or abnormal, your attitude will leak despite your conscious attempt to appear neutral and objective.

      Implication: invest time in becoming and staying aware of key attitudes in yourself and your co-workers about these complex clients and your work with them - e.g. "Generally, stepfamily clients are dysfunctional and don't make much progress in therapy." For more perspective, see this and this.

      11) With court-ordered clients, intake and the first clinician contact will be shaped by some special needs and realities. See this for more detail and perspective.

      More guidelines for first clinical contacts with divorced-family and stepfamily clients...

      12) After the clients introduce themselves and their situation, ask them for key information they may omit, like...

  • "Who comprises / makes up / belongs to your (multi-home) nuclear family now?"

  • "Do your family members all consider you to be a stepfamily?" (If they are)

  • "Who referred you here, and why?"

  • "Have any of you experienced with family counseling or therapy previously? If so, (a) who initiated it, (b) why, and (c) and how was that experience for you?"

  • "Do your other family members know you're coming here? How do they feel about your coming?"

  • "Specifically - how will you (adults) tell when our work here is done?"

  • "How would you mates / co-parents each describe your main priorities in - say - the last three months?"

  • "What do you think may happen if your problems don't improve?"

  • "What do you each feel prevents you from resolving these (presenting problems) now?"

  • other questions that occur to you with this client...

      13) In a first meeting, typical divorcing-family and stepfamily co-parents have a high need to vent, vs. problem-solve. They may feel unheard, misunderstood, and/or blamed by other co-parents, key relatives, and friends. Often these co-parents are wounded (shamed, guilty, anxious, distrustful), socially isolated, and have no one with whom they can vent honestly with.

      This is specially likely for divorced co-parents who feel anxious and ashamed if their new marriage feels significantly troubled. The need to vent is also likely for divorced parents who haven't grieved their divorce and re/marriage losses well, and/or healed any major related guilts.

Implication: effective clinicians will stay empathically aware of this need to vent, and balance it with their need to ask assessment questions and begin to evolve clear clinical goals and strategies.

      14) Many clients can't coherently articulate what they need at first, or they describe their problem/s in very general terms. ("I just need to get along better with my stepdaughter.")  Where so, one first-contact goal is starting to dig down to clarify and rank each client-member's - and describe what you're doing and why.  

      Another option is to model empathic listening while digging down ("So Amanda, you resent feeling disrespected by your husband's ex wife and discounted by him, and you need him to empathize and want to support you on this.").

      Typical first meetings also offer many chances to (a) demonstrate metatalk (objectively commenting on your current communication process), and (b) inviting clients to try out "hearing checks" to prepare for effective problem solving. ("Carlos, are you willing to summarize to Nina what you think she just said? Doing so does not mean you agree with her.")

      15) Identify the clients' personal and family strengths during and after the first meeting. Typical initiating co-parents are anxious, guilty, angry, and confused. It can feel reassuring to have the clinician spontaneously affirm individual and shared strengths as the meeting progresses - e.g. "I'm impressed at how well you two [ share genuine eye contact / use your sense of humor / stay focused / assert yourselves ] on hot topics."

      Options: (a) ask co-parents "How does it feel to have me affirm your strengths? How often do you acknowledge your personal and family strengths together?" "What would happen if you decided to help each other do that more often?" (b) At the end of the meeting, suggest the clients fill out and discuss this (long) inventory of stepfamily strengths or equivalent. Then follow up at the next session, if any.

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      Pause and reflect - what are you (your active subselves) thinking and feeling now? How do these ideas compare with your present way of conducting a first contact with divorcing-family and stepfamily clients? There are a lot of ideas above. If you had to pick several of special importance to you, what are they?

      Breathe, stretch, and recall why you began to read this. Are you getting what you need, so far? .

  Useful First-meeting Questions

      Typical first face-to-face contacts with new clients move through four phases: welcoming and intro-ductions, clients' venting and the clinician reacting, client questions, and closure. During the first (or any) meeting, client reactions to the clinician's observations and questions help to (a) further assess the client system, and (b) decide where to focus and how to proceed.

      Many clinician questions can be teaching and awareness-raising interventions - e.g. "On a scale of one to ten, how would you rank your recent problem-solving effectiveness as a couple?" The way partici-pating clients respond verbally and non-verbally also reveals much about them to a process-aware clini-cian. Some questions pertain to all clients, and others to a specific client type. In a typical first meeting, there will only be time enough for a select few of questions like these. Some may have been answered during the intake process.

All Clients

1) "Who comprises / belongs to your family now?" A related probe is "Do each of the co-parents / care-giving adults agree on who comprises/belongs to your family now?" Another option is "Who would each of your kids say belongs to their family?" These start to test for loyalty, values, and membership conflicts, relationship triangles, and possible incomplete or blocked grief.

2) "Who leads your multi-home family now - who asserts their needs and opinions most forcefully and makes the major family decisions? This is an initial probe for family-structure problems, values conflicts,  co-parent awareness, and false-self distortions. 

3) "What do you (each) feel is causing this (presenting) problem?" "I don't know" is a common response. The way clients respond to this usually provides a rich harvest of assessment information.

4) "Who's problem is this (for each main presenting problem) - i.e. who do you feel is responsible for resolving this problem?" This tests for false-self wounds , process awareness , and structural alliances and hostilities among nuclear-family members.

5) "What have you already tried toward filling your needs (solving each main presenting problem)?" Response/s reveal more about the client family's structure and dynamics, and sets the stage for the clinician proposing new strategies.

6) "What's the worst thing that may happen if this (each presenting) problem isn't solved?" This assesses for false-self domination and reality distortions .

7) "From one to 10, how would you rate your family adults' recent ability to permanently solve major family problems?" Option: "Would one of you describe the main differences between fighting or arguing and problem-solving?" This is a teaching question (intervention), and a preliminary test for co-parent awareness of their communication effectiveness (Lesson 2).

8) To two or more conflicted family members: "In this situation, whose needs do you each feel are more important - yours or (the other person's)?" Unawareness of 1-up / 1-down attitudes and related R(espect) messages is a common major source of relationship conflict and ineffective communications. The "best" answer is "Our needs are of equal importance to me." 

9) To each co-parent: "What would you say your (and/or your partner's) top four priorities have been in  recent months?" This assesses for adult self-awareness, reality distortion, the probable shared  priority of co-parents' primary relationship, and possible adult difficulty bonding. The client's responses also may suggest whether either mate made one or more unwise re/marital choices. This multi-level assessment question is useful throughout the work. Kids' opinions are very helpful too!

10) "What resources do you feel your family members bring to solving these problems? - i.e. what do you see are your family's key strengths now?" Often, co-parents aren't used to thinking of - or intentionally using - their human strengths (personal traits, talents, knowledge, etc.) in defining and reducing their stressors - specially if they'/re dominated by reactive false-selves.

11) "How would you describe the effectiveness of recent communications (and/or ..."the quality of the relationships...") between the adults in your kids' several homes ?" This _ reinforces that their kids' "other parents" are full members of their nuclear stepfamily, and _ begins to assess for significant barriers to co-parenting teamwork among divorced parents and their new partners ( Projects 4and 10 ).

12) "How would you rate the ability of each adult in your family to grieve their losses  effectively?" This is an initial probe for significant co-parent wounds, knowledge of grieving basics, a toxic family grieving policy, and possible incomplete or blocked grief.

13) "Has anyone in your or your mate's family and/or ancestry had (a) significant trouble with the law, (b) any of the four addictions, or (c) medication or treatment for psychological problems? This is another initial assessment for inherited false-self wounds and low-nurturance childhoods for any co-parents.

14) "Which other family members would you wish to participate in our work?"; or "I need (name specific other client adults and kids) to participate with us. Do you see any problem with that?" This starts to evaluate the viability of working with all related co-parents , and possibly some or all children and key relatives.

Divorcing and Re/divorcing-family Clients

15) "Is anyone in your home or family thinking seriously about (re)divorce? If so - who?" If the implied or direct answer is "yes," a cluster of related questions like these may be relevant in the first meeting:

  • "Can you mates each name the specific key (re)marital needs you each aren't getting met well enough recently?" This can lead to a more detailed discussion (in another meeting?) of (re)marital needs, priorities, and how couples can use effective communication skills to get them met more often.

  • "What benefits do you each see to legal separation and/or divorce?"

  • Have you  agreed on what each of your (dependent) kids will  if you decide to (re)divorce? This can promote a discussion of typical kids' developmental and adjustment needs to parental divorce and re/divorce, and who is responsible for filling these needs adequately. The alternative is major co-parental neglect.

  • Do you each feel you've tried every possible option for avoiding re/divorce? Even if the couple says "Yes," you may give them a copy of these 29 alternatives with or without summarizing and discussing them.

  • "Do you have (a) a shared definition of a 'successful' (re)divorce and (b) a cooperative plan to achieve that?" Expect ambivalence, confusion, guilt, and "No" to either question; and decide if and how to begin outlining.

  • "As you know, psychological and legal divorce causes major changes and losses for everyone. Are you each aware of your personal and family grieving policies and whether they're healthy?"

  • "What supports do you and your kids have to help you all adjust to this major change?"

      Any of these and/or other factors may prompt further initial assessment questions. Unless all the participating adults are willing to focus on divorce in the first meeting, it may be a more respectful to leave this focus to a future meeting, after hearing more of their situation and needs.

Courting and Committed Stepfamily Clients

16)  "What brings you here?" or "What do you each need?" or "What would each of you like to leave here with, today?" In committed-stepfamily clients, the answer will suggest whether the co-parents are phase three (non-re/marital focus) or phase four (re/marital focus) clients.

17)  "Do your family adults and kids all agree that you are a multi-home stepfamily?" This begins to assess for (a) stepfamily-identity conflicts and/or denials, and (b) unrealistic family role and relationship expectations.

18)  Are you co-parents and your relatives and supporters aware that typical stepfamilies like yours differ from intact biofamilies in over 70 ways, and what all these differences can mean to your adults and kids? Co-parents are never aware of either of these, so a teaching question like this can raise their motivation to learn the answers if they're not trivializing their stepfamily identity. Option - follow this question up by providing copies of this and this, and inviting the co-parents to study, discuss, and apply them to their unique situation.

19)  "Have any of your adults studied how to create and maintain a high-nurturance stepfamily?" The usual answers are "No," or "Not much." This probes for stepfamily awareness, and begins to alert co-parents to (a) the concept of family nurturance levels and (b) how much typical stepfamilies differ from intact biofamilies.

      More sample questions for first clinician-client meetings...

20"Do all your co-parents have a mutually-agreed plan to merge your several biofamilies over time?" Typical co-parents and relatives have never identified the 16 categories of things they need to patiently merge and stabilize over time, specially if they discount or ignore that the new mates' commitment initiates forming a complex multi-home stepfamily together.

21)  "Are all your co-parents clear and agreed on the long-term purpose/s of your (step)family?" or "Are all your co-parents (and kids and relatives) clear on why your (step)family exists?" The common answer to this is superficial and vague, or "Not really." If so, these first-meeting questions can interest co-parents in (a) learning the concept and practical value of evolving a consensual family mission or vision statement, and (b) becoming motivated to use it together to resolve complex and conflictual family dilemmas. If client co-parents show little genuine interest in this, assess (a) for psychological wounds and (b) the adults' true priorities.

22)  "How do your adults decide if your nuclear (step)family is 'working well'?"  This tests for adults' long-range vision, systemic awareness, and whether they're aware of and concerned about their multi-home family's nurturance level ("functioning"), See co-parent Projects 6 , 9 , and 10 .

23)  "What would you say are your stepfamily's most significant supports recently?" or "If you need (step)family support, what kind, and why?" Typical stepfamily adults lack informed support, and may not know they need it until major crises evolve. They also don't know how to critically evaluate stepfamily advice, counseling, support-groups, or materials.

If Presenting Problems Focus on a Primary Relationship...

24) "On a scale of one to 10, in the last several months, how respected by your partner have you felt?" A common partnership problem is often disrespect, and mates not knowing what causes that, and how to talk about rebuilding respect.

25) "On a scale of one to 10, how well heard - vs. agreed with - by your partner have you felt in the last several months?" Typical dissatisfied couples have ineffective communication skills, including inabilities to hear each other, and to talk constructively about improving that (metatalk and problem-solve).

26) "When you two have a disagreement, how do you usually try to resolve it, and who's needs usually get met?" This introduces the idea that communication occurs to fill needs, and begins to illuminate marital communication blocks and unawarenesses.

27) "Right now, would you say you feel like partners or opponents?" This lays the groundwork for exploring what prevents the couple from acting cooperatively, rather than defensively or aggressively.

28) "When you have family conflicts over parenting issues, who do you feel your partner usually sides with?" This begins to test for probable stepfamily values and loyalty conflicts and relationship triangles.

29)  "In the last several months, what would you say your partner's top three or four priorities have been - as judged by his/her actions?" This begins a focus on how important the mates' relationship is to each of them. If the relationship is not consistently among their top several priorities, that can be a primary problem and/or the symptom of another primary problem (like psychological wounds in one or both mates).

      These represent the wide range of initial assessment / teaching questions a clinician can ask. The clients' need to vent will shape how much time will be available to ask and process them in this first meeting. Before beginning to close the meeting, a final summary question can be something like...

30) "After all that we've discussed, what do you feel is blocking the co-parents in your (step)family from resolving these problems?" Option: after the clients respond, summarize and illustrate the premise of surface and primary problems (unfilled needs), and the learnable skill of digging down to discern the latter. 

      Reflect on what you just read in relation to what you believe typical clients and clinicians need in their first meeting. How do these questions compare to the ones you're used to asking? Option - edit these questions into an intake questionnaire and/or a homework worksheet for co-parents to complete and discuss prior to the next meeting.

      Effective clinicians will reserve 10"" or 15" to close the first meeting comfortably. What usually needs to be covered?

Options for Ending the First Meeting

      As the first session ends, all involved want to feel their key needs were satisfied. A common challenge for the clinician is to monitor the time and direct the process to end on time, without rushing or omitting key goals. This can be hard if the clients haven't finished venting (which is likely). Option: alert clients at the start that "We may not have enough time to cover all that you want me to know, so let's help each other stay focused as we go, OK?"

      See how you agree that for an effective closure of the first meeting, the clinician will cover these things:

Ask if the participating client/s feel the clinician (a) empathically understands what they (each) need in their family, and from the clinical work; (b) why, and (c) can be trusted to not take sides between family members.

Hilight any factors that helped or hindered the client-clinician process; ("The street noise made it hard for me to focus at times." / "I liked how you summarized what I said.");

Raise clients' awareness of their process - e.g. ask "What felt different about how you were here, compared to when you're at home together?" and/or "Has anything changed for each of you since you walked in the door?"

Summary observations on (a) major presenting problems, (b) possible / probable primary needs causing the presenting problems, (c) apparent client strengths, and (d) key immediate and long-term suggestions to help the clients fill their primary (vs. surface) needs - i.e. to achieve desired second-order changes.;

Get agreement on the next steps - e.g. agree on a next meeting, who should attend, and a tentative agenda. And an effective first-meeting ending will include...

Any recommended "homework." Because a common stressor for these client families is unawareness and lack of knowledge, asking them to read and discuss key handouts and/or Web articles between sessions can be very cost-effective. Choosing which topics depends on the type of client and the adults' present knowledge and primary problems. Useful new information for average clients includes:


      This clinical model proposes that typical divorcing-family and stepfamily clients are significantly different structurally and developmentally, compared to other types of family system. These differences justify some unique goals and questions in the first intake and/or client-clinician contact.

      The prior page offers perspective on this, proposes what typical clients and clinicians need for an effective first contact, and adds specific suggestions to suit these clients, with and without a prior intake interview. This page adds an array of useful early-assessment questions to guide further work, depending on the type of client; and (b) suggestions on how and when to close the first client-clinician meeting, including some homework options.

      Pause and reflect: what have you learned here, and what does it mean to you as a person and a professional? Recall why you began to read this. Did you get what you needed? If so, what do you need to do next? If not - what do you need?

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