That Debate About Free Sessions
This post is written about counselling/psychotherapy in particular, but is relevant to many micro-business people who sell their time for money, particularly to people who may be in need, vulnerable, or emotional. It is also helpful if you are feeling needy, vulnerable or emotional yourself.
I remember many years ago talking a with a hard nosed businessman about a strengthening trend I had noticed, with counsellors giving a free initial meeting. His response was “Ah, the seduction technique!” which brought me up sharply. I realised that this is why promoting ourselves as therapists is different to many other types of businesses – seduction is exactly what we do NOT want to happen in our therapy room. Nor is leaving the client with any sense of owing us something. We need a clean interaction.
Why do we offer free time?
It feels good to give a free sample of what you do, right? But think about it, For example, the “seduction technique” is frequently used in farmers markets where there are quality products which are also more pricey than the supermarkets. What do you feel when you accept that free taster of their products? Most of us feel an obligation to return the generosity by buying, or feel a tad guilty if we don't. Is that what we want for our vulnerable clients? Is it ethical?
Another big reason for giving a free sample of our time is lack of confidence. Be honest, are you needing that client to like you? Are you worried that they may not want to work with you? Do you want to "be nice" or avoid conflict about what seems like an expensive investment? Is your time really freely given or is there a hint of desperation? You are not alone, but we do need to ensure that our insecurities do not muddy the water for the client.
How can we ensure a safe boundary if we do offer free time?
I'm not suggesting that you do or don't give free time as a sample of how you work, but that guidelines are useful if you do. The more vulnerable the client, the more important they are. Here are three suggestions to minimise discomfort for the client and feel more ethical yourself.
Keep the free time short.
The longer the freebie, the greater the risk of obligation. It is also a greater risk of the client offloading before we actually have an agreement to work together in place. Just imagine that from the client point of view – you have revealed the worst of your life to a total stranger who you have not even decided that you want to work with yet...they let that happen...will you feel safe enough working with them? Or will you work with them because you have offloaded and haven't actually thought through whether you are happy with your listener?
Keep the free time out of your therapy room.
Arrange a specific time to have a 15 to 20 minute telephone call. Make it closer by using Skype or Zoom so they can see you, but not so intimate as face-to-face which may trigger offloading.
State clearly the parameters at the beginning and end.
For example, you may say at the start of your call or meeting that “we have up to 20 minutes for you to ask any questions which may help you decide if you want to meet with me for an initial session. Also I would like to know what you want from working with a therapist”. I also ask why they chose me, as that can be a useful indicator of any projection they may be carrying. For example, knowing from my website that I used to be a nurse, some people assume I am straight-talking which is true, while others may assume I will understand their current health problems which may not be true, although I may have a contextual understanding. After all, my nursing experience was decades ago. Clarify at the end what the options are. I like to make clear that the initial meeting proper is a trial session to ensure they are happy with their decision to work with me, and that I will reserve that same time ahead for them should they wish to continue.
Do I stick to my own guidelines? Mostly. When I get complacent, or caught on the hop, or try too hard to accommodate, that is when I fall on my face. Yes, I still do that after 30+ years. I am better at dealing with it when I do, however I still cringe at myself sometimes. Our profession is not about getting everything right, but about attending to detail, including when we get it wrong.