Here’s the scene: You sit down with a potential client for the intake, and as you begin to ask her questions you find out that she is in your office because she is looking for a new therapist. She goes on to talk about how awful her previous therapist was, and you begin to hear story after story of how incompetent this other professional was. Maybe the client doesn’t go on a diatribe about the other therapist. Maybe her answers are short and vague regarding her past therapy experience. You still need 3 or maybe 15 more clients to fill up your schedule, and consequently, you could really use this client. You might be tempted to empathize with the client, tout how different you are than the other therapist, and promise to help her with what is ailing her.
While this salesmanship may get you a client, it will sometimes backfire. It may be the case that the therapist and the client were a horrible fit and that things were dysfunctional, but it could easily be that the relationship was therapeutically beneficial to the client and she is running from the old therapist because the therapist is getting to close to the thing or place in her story that she does not want to attend to. Maybe the therapeutic relationship is stirring up things that the client does not know what to do with and processing these struggles could be life changing. If these other dynamics are at play, then your taking on this client may be at best slowing down her growth process and at worst may be aiding and abetting her maladaptive coping strategies.
Down the road, if you get too close to the client’s issues or things become uncomfortable for the client, you may be the awful therapist that she talks about with her next therapist. And, when the other therapist finds out that you are now seeing their client without talking to him or her (this will happen sometime, your city is not as big as you think it is), you may have burned a bridge with a potential referral source or like minded colleague. When I find myself in this situation, my response is:
“I would be more than willing to work with you. I am wondering though if you need to work things out with your previous therapist or at least have a goodbye session to have some closure for you. I would also like a release of information because I’d like to get your previous therapist’s perspective about where you two have been.”
The hope is that the client goes back to the other therapist and there is either repair or a good termination process. By talking with the old therapist, I am both opening up an opportunity to learn about my potential new client and also show a level of professional courtesy to my colleague. If your client was the one looking for a new therapist, wouldn’t you want to hear from her new therapist?