What to do in a difficult session is probably most new consultants’ biggest concern. The good news is that difficult sessions are relatively rare. Most clients don’t want to be difficult, and will allow themselves to be guided away from the kind of escalation that characterizes a truly difficult session. The secret to having as few difficult sessions as possible is the same as the secret to being a successful consultant: manage the session. Still, it’s possible that no matter how well you follow the script, now and then you’ll experience some difficulty.
A. Client doesn’t want to talk/work (Based on “Talk to Me: Engaging Reluctant Writers,” by Muriel Harris)
1. Empathize and validate the client’s reluctance; after you have shown yourself to be in sympathy, congratulate clients for coming to the Center, and encourage them to build on this step. Assigning a task is a good way to build, and another opportunity to offer encouragement.
2. Acknowledge a lack of interest in writing and try for a small success: completion of a relevant task will give you an opportunity to offer encouragement and can be used as a springboard for the next small success.
3. Help a client give voice to fear: fears expressed in language can seem less infinitely terrifying, and putting their feelings into words may help clients to begin to see how they can overcome them, or at least work around them. Empathy and encouragement are again helpful here, as is the assigning of some task that clients can complete in spite of their anxiety.
4. For clients who have a hard time staying on topic (for example, those who mistake your empathy and encouragement as signs that you are merely a sympathetic ear, and who then would prefer to use the session to confide all of their problems, instead of getting down to work), actively refocus them on the work: here the text is extremely important, because it gives you an opening to say, “Yes, that sounds very upsetting, but let’s focus on something we can accomplish today, like analyzing the argument in this paper.” Assigning a task is also a good way to refocus on the text.
5. When clients seem truly stuck for a way to begin, you can offer them questions—that they can ask themselves—that allow them to wonder: e.g., as to whether the paper meets the assignment, whether the difficulty is related to problems with organization or “flow,” whether the claims and evidence are sufficient, etc. Suggest a question by saying, “Are you wondering if . . .?” Help them follow up on their responses with some task.
B. Client is unhappy with Center policy
1. Bear in mind that the client’s unhappiness (and anger) is not really directed at you, although you are the recipient of it. Don’t get defensive, and concentrate on keeping your tone and demeanor calm, so as not to trigger an escalation of the client’s emotional state.
2. Briefly explain the rationale behind the policy. For example, you can tell the client that the reason we won’t work with a text the same day it’s due is that doesn’t allow time for the kind of reflection that is essential for good revision. But don’t waste time defending the policy, or getting into an argument with a client who wants to challenge a policy; at that point it’s time to refer the client to the Director.
3. Refer the client to the Director: if the Director is in the office, you may offer to walk the client back immediately; it is better to do this as soon as you begin to suspect that a client is becoming angry (rather than waiting for a client’s anger to become full-blown). If the Director is not in the office (if it’s in the evening, for example), tell the client that you can’t say more about the matter than you’ve already said, but that the Director will be happy to speak to them about the policy at length; then provide them with the Director’s email and/or phone number (desk staff will have this information if you need it).
4. If the referral ends the session, make a note of this in the session recap. If the referral seems to calm the client, and if it seems possible to get back to work again, then attempt to refocus the session on the text, and act as though nothing has happened.
C. Client becomes overly familiar / makes you feel uncomfortable
1. Flatly refuse to answer any personal questions, and, if you can, look the client directly in the eye to say that asking such questions is inappropriate, and that you cannot continue a session if the client asks again. Do not laugh: it’s not funny, although it may feel tempting to laugh as a way of easing the tension. And don’t just try to ignore: a client with boundary issues may take laughter or a failure to react as signals to press harder. And—this is important—you must not give the client another chance after the first. End the session immediately.
2. If a client touches you in any way that makes you feel uncomfortable, immediately end the session. Do not allow yourself to be persuaded that it was “an accident.”
3. To end the session, stand up and declare, in a quiet, firm voice, that the session is over, and that the client must leave the Center immediately. Once you take this step, you must refuse to be persuaded to begin the session again. If the client becomes emotional, signal to someone nearby (desk staff or another consultant) that you need help, and send that person either for the closest Center staff member, or to call Campus Security and the Library front desk (both, if no Center staff are present—you don’t know who will arrive first, and you want someone to come quickly). But don’t allow yourself to be left alone in the Center with the client.
3a. Chances are good that if Campus Security is called, the client will not wait around to talk to whoever comes. But do not cancel the call if the client leaves. Wait until Security comes, and report the incident.
4. If you have to end a session, describe what happened in the session recap, but do not send a copy to the client’s instructor. Forward the form to the Director.
5. If you are working in the Center and you see another consultant having difficulty with a client, do not hesitate to put your session on hold to go over to ask if everything is all right. If the client in that session becomes angry or confrontational, call for help, but do not leave the consultant alone, or allow yourself to be left alone with the client.