When starting as a mental health case manager, the temptation can be high to be all business. After all, the client has come for a specific service and it’s your job to provide it, right? On top of that, starting a new role can be overwhelming, making it difficult for you to relax. As a result, many students and new case managers resort to a checklist-style of interaction with clients, making sure they hit every step exactly as they were trained, missing key opportunities to connect in the process. Unfortunately, this can come across as cold, disingenuous, and careless from the clients’ perspective. Surely, this is not the impression we want to leave.
With that in mind, here are a few pro tips for starting a relationship with a client.
Set the atmosphere
Believe it or not, your client relationship begins before they arrive for their first appointment. It begins with the time, thoughtfulness, and care you put into the preparation for your first meeting with them.
Before you begin meeting clients, check out the intake space you will be using and ensure it is as client-centred and trauma-informed as possible. Perhaps softer lighting could be used, instead of harsh fluorescent lighting. Try placing some pleasing objects in the room, such as plants, a rug, and artwork. It’s also important to note any issues with the accessibility of the space and take steps to correct them. I like to ask my clients upfront if there are any accommodations they need to access services with me and then I ensure that these are in place. Don’t be afraid to ask these questions. Your clients will appreciate that you thought of this. Overall, try to create a warm, welcoming, inclusive, and accessible atmosphere.
On the day of your first meeting, spend five to ten minutes setting up your intake space. Do this every time, for every client. Try to be thoughtful about the kind of work that you do and the client you are meeting. For example, I work with a lot of survivors of trauma. As such, I have a “trauma basket” set up in my intake rooms, with an assortment of evidence-based tools (i.e. mandala colouring books and colouring pencils, stress balls, hand-held puzzles, etc.), as well as facial tissue and a small garbage can. All of my clients are also low-income, so I have an assortment of snacks in the room. I make sure that everything is well stocked and positioned.
Right before your clients arrive, brew fresh coffee, boil water for tea, and ensure you have clean drinking glasses for water. Offer them a beverage as soon as they arrive. This sets the tone for a conversation with someone friendly and caring and goes a long way to putting people at ease.
Investing time into your clients before you even meet them will send a clear message that you care about them and your work. It will not go unnoticed, even if it goes unmentioned.
Get to know your client
Put down that notepad and pen for a few minutes. Take a breath. I promise you can pick them back up soon.
You may only have an hour to meet with your client, but that doesn’t mean you can’t spend a few minutes talking to them. In doing so, you will save yourself a lot of time in the long run because your client will be more at ease and open to talking when it’s time to get to work. As a result, you won’t have to work so hard to get the information you need to support them in your full capacity. Building a relationship of trust and care with your client is the single most important part of the work that you do together, so don’t miss these important opportunities to connect.
If you don’t find it easy to spark up random conversations with people, start with the weather and weekend plans. It gets easier with practice. Once you get to know more about your clients, you can ask them about the things going on in their life during follow up meetings or phone calls, like their niece’s school play or friend’s wedding. They will appreciate that you listened, remembered, and were thoughtful enough to ask, which is foundational to building strong relationships.
Now that you’ve created a welcoming space and a welcoming face, it’s time to introduce yourself and your role. While the client may have heard a version of this information from someone else, such as an intake worker or receptionist, they must hear the full overview from you. It’s important to be clear about what you can and cannot do, as mental health roles can be far-reaching and wonderfully diverse at all levels of practice. As a result, clients may have preconceived expectations based on their previous experiences with other mental health professionals. In my experience, no one knows your role better than you, so this will be an opportunity to clarify the work ahead of both of you and to prevent complications from misunderstandings down the road.
Pro tip: Don’t be afraid to share a little bit about yourself before you start asking the client to share a lot of very personal and vulnerable details about themself. This is referred to as “use of self” according to best practice. In doing so, the client will feel less guarded about opening up to you and, in turn, you will be able to do a more thorough job supporting them. Just be careful not to share anything overly personal, identifying, sensitive, or generally inappropriate according to the code of ethics.
There is so much to think about when meeting with a client for the first time, it can be easy to overthink everything and fall into that checklist style of assessing. Just remember to relax. You’ve got this! If you forget to ask something, you can always follow up later. It will get easier in time and you will get better as you go. Even seasoned veterans don’t get it perfect every time. So, don’t be so hard on yourself and enjoy the journey. Most importantly, enjoy your client. Your time together will be over before you know it.
Disclaimer: Tina Cumby is a Social Worker in Ontario Canada. As such, some of the advice in this article may reflect the particular ethical guidelines for social workers in Ontario Canada. When in doubt, refer to the ethical guidelines of your particular mental health profession and the state or province you are licensed to practice in.
Tina Cumby, MSW, RSW, is an independent writer and creator of free content for mental health professionals. She has been employed as a social worker for four years and has another year of case management and policy development experience. She works primarily with adults living at the intersections of poverty, disability, and trauma at all levels of practice (micro, mezzo, and macro). Tina is particularly well versed in social work case management and student supervision.