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This article is one of a series on
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
"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,
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...
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;
increasing mutual first-contact satisfaction;
questions, depending on the
type of client; and...
ending the first contact
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
(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.
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
(worthy and dignified) and empathically valued and
by the clinician and each other; and to...
trust in the clinician's
and concern; and co-parents need to...
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
and typical clients need...
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.
referred by family court also need to comply with judicial
orders and perhaps their attorney's and/or a mediator's suggestions or
Any children present usually need (a) to feel
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...
going to do what after the first meeting ends - e.g. "homework," negotiate another
appointment, research some information, invite another family member, etc.
(i.e. one or more anxious
also need to
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
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
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
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
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
style and effectiveness, and (c) unspoken
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
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
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:
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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?"
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
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
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
suggestions for successful first contacts with typical divorcing-family and
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
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
- "...so I know what it feels like to sit where you are."
How experienced you are with divorced-family
stepfamily clients, and whether you've had any special
in working with
Hilight any areas of expertise that you feel will
reassure and/or alert the co-parent/s - e.g...
the psychological effects of significant childhood
abandonment, and major
in self-motivated adults ("Grown Wounded Children," in this model);
helping motivated clients
including spotting and freeing blocked mourning;
assessment and management, including
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
among separated or
divorcing co-parents; and...
helping courting and committed
stepfamily co-parents and supporters learn how to spot
and to proactively evolve
high-nurturance (step)families together.
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.
clinician's anxiety or reluctance about disclosing limited appropriate personal
information to clients may indicate false-self
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
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
12) After the clients
introduce themselves and their situation, ask them for
key information they may omit, like...
"Who comprises / makes up /
"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
these (presenting problems) now?"
other questions that occur to you with this
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.
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
to clarify and rank each client-member's
- and describe what you're doing and why.
Another option is to model
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
(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.")
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
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.
+ + +
Pause and reflect - what are you (your active
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? .
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.
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
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
/ 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
possible incomplete or blocked
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
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.
"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
structural alliances and
hostilities among nuclear-family members.
"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.
"What's the worst thing that may happen
if this (each presenting) problem isn't solved?" This assesses for
"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
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
is a common major source of relationship conflict and ineffective
communications. The "best" answer is "Our needs are of equal importance
would you say your (and/or your partner's) top four priorities have been
in recent months?" This assesses for adult
reality distortion, the
of co-parents' primary relationship,
and possible adult difficulty
The client's responses
also may suggest whether either mate made one or more
This multi-level assessment question is useful throughout the work. Kids'
opinions are very helpful too!
"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
would you describe the effectiveness of recent communications (and/or
..."the quality of the relationships...") between the
adults in your kids'
_ reinforces that their kids' "other parents" are full members of their
nuclear stepfamily, and _ begins to assess
to co-parenting teamwork among divorced parents and their new partners (
"How would you rate the ability of each adult in your
is an initial probe for significant co-parent wounds, knowledge of
grieving basics, a toxic family
incomplete or blocked
"Has anyone in your
or your mate's family and/or ancestry had (a) significant trouble with the law, (b) any of the four
medication or treatment for psychological problems? This
is another initial assessment for inherited false-self
childhoods for any co-parents.
other family members would you wish to participate in our work?";
"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
and possibly some or all children and key relatives.
Divorcing and Re/divorcing-family Clients
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:
you mates each name the specific key
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?"
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
and who is responsible for filling these needs adequately. The
alternative is major co-parental
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.
you have (a) a shared definition of a
(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
and whether they're healthy?"
do you and your kids have to help you all adjust to this
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
brings you here?" or "What do you each need?" or "What would
each of you like to leave here with, today?" In committed-stepfamily
the answer will suggest whether the co-parents are phase three (non-re/marital focus) or
phase four (re/marital focus)
your family adults and kids all agree that you are a
This begins to assess for (a)
and/or denials, and
(b) unrealistic family
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
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.
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
and (b) how much typical stepfamilies
differ from intact biofamilies.
sample questions for first clinician-client meetings...
"Do all your co-parents have a
mutually-agreed plan to
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
multi-home stepfamily together.
all your co-parents clear and agreed on the long-term
of your (step)family?" or "Are all your co-parents (and kids
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.
"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
("functioning"), See co-parent Projects
"What would you say are your stepfamily's most significant
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
If Presenting Problems Focus on a Primary
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.
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).
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
and begins to illuminate marital communication
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.
you have family conflicts
over parenting issues, who do you feel your partner usually sides with?"
This begins to test for probable stepfamily
conflicts and relationship
"In the last several months,
what would you say your partner's top three or four
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
in one or both mates).
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...
"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
to discern the latter.
Reflect on what you just read in relation to what you believe typical
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
Effective clinicians will reserve 10"" or 15" to close the first meeting
comfortably. What usually needs to be covered?