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Building Rapport With Clients in Counselling

As society becomes increasingly aware of the importance of maintaining good mental health as well as good physical health, counsellors play a vital role. In 2021, there were approximately 199 thousand therapy professionals in employment in the United Kingdom and that number is only growing.

Mental health organisations are understaffed and counsellors are overwhelmed with high caseloads.

Despite this, for their work to have value it is important that counsellors take the time they need to build strong and trusting relationships with their clients. This trust and rapport may seem insignificant but in reality, it is fundamental to the success of counselling sessions. Therapeutic rapport is an essential part of a healthy therapist-client relationship. It contributes to a client feeling safe and respected so that therapy can succeed.

Professional counsellors and therapists should work to build a rapport with their clients from their very first session. The aim of this post is to provide valuable insights into how you can build this important rapport and incorporate it into your sessions:

Building Rapport With Clients in Counselling

Understanding Rapport in Counselling

Rapport is a term that means establishing a sense of having a connection with a person. Rapport in counselling is sometimes also referred to as therapeutic rapport. Therapeutic rapport is a term that refers to the empathetic and shared understanding of issues between a therapist and a client.

Clients entering therapy can often feel alone and like nobody understands them. But when they have built a rapport with their therapist, they can feel like someone ‘has their back’.

Not all counsellors will feel an instant rapport with their clients but it is important that they work to establish a connection and a good working relationship. Unless a client feels a sense of rapport, they will be unlikely to be able to work well with the counsellor.

Different counsellors will use different psychological approaches in their treatment methodologies. In many psychological theories, rapport is the foundation and cornerstone of the therapy process and without it, progress cannot be made.

Some of the patient benefits of building up a therapeutic rapport include

  • Patients are better able to disclose painful memories or information to counsellors who they have established a relationship with.
  • This rapport means that they are more comfortable discussing their emotions and experiences.
  • Patients who have established a rapport with their counsellor feel more able to work through difficult issues and gain insight into their problems and concerns.
  • Rapport ensures patients feel safe and better supported as they work through the counselling process.
Building Rapport With Clients in Counselling

The Building Blocks of Rapport

There are four main principles of building rapport. These are sometimes referred to as the building blocks of rapport. The 4 Principles of Rapport are empathy, authenticity, similarity, and shared experience.

Being given the ability to talk about yourself is rewarding and Harvard neuroscientists Diana Tamir and Jason Mitchell have conducted a series of behavioural experiments demonstrating that when individuals talk about themselves they release endorphins. In short, sharing information about yourself makes you feel happier. When counsellors demonstrate empathy and show their clients that they are listening to them when they speak, they are more inclined to forge a relationship with you and build rapport.

It is important that counsellors and clients maintain a certain amount of professional distance: your client should remain aware that you are their counsellor and a professional healthcare provider rather than a friend. But the communication between you should still feel authentic. People like people who are genuine. They feel more inclined to share their feelings and experiences with them.

Counsellors should be aware of the importance of non-verbal communication when interacting with their clients. Often the counsellor may learn more from a person’s gestures than they do from the words being spoken. These kinds of cues play a significant role in helping both the counsellor and the person in therapy to identify and access deeper emotional issues of which the person may not be consciously aware. Non-verbal communication can help to forge deeper relationships. Active listening also plays a key role in building rapport with clients in counselling because, like non-verbal communication, active listening takes into account the body language that is being displayed, and also the tone, speed, and pitch of voice of the client.

Active listening supports the counsellor to understand what is being said and to identify the clients’ thoughts and feelings. Active listening is a skill that needs to be practised and developed and works best in an environment that is quiet and without distractions. An example of how active listening works well in counselling is when counsellors reflect back on a portion of the speaker’s words to emphasise that they understand their emotions or viewpoints. For example, a counsellor might say “If I’m understanding correctly, you’re feeling both angry and sad at the same time about your mother’s death.”

Building Rapport With Clients in Counselling

The Role of Empathy

Empathy plays a vital role in counselling. Displaying empathy shows that the counsellor is listening, understanding, and experiencing what the client is sharing. You must experience empathy before you can express it, so it is important that counsellors have experience of both giving and receiving empathy outside of their professional experience.

According to Positive Psychology, Empathy is more than just communication; it is about challenging self-perceptions, finding joy in making connections, and furthering communication. And it requires you as a counsellor to become more open to your own and your client’s feelings and to make them visible in your relationship with them

Some of the techniques that counsellors can adopt in session with their clients to develop and show empathic understanding include

  • Matching the client’s tone with your own response. If the client is showing you that they are feeling hurt then you should match this with your own reaction. Use your tone to demonstrate that you understand what they are feeling.
  • Express your feelings with your facial expressions. Let your client see that their words are having an impact on you with both your facial expressions and the way that you are holding yourself, moving your body, and so on.
  • Vocalise the feelings that you are seeing your client express. If they look angry then use the word angry. This applies if they are sad, scared, or in pain. Examples of this include phrases like “I can hear the pain in your voice” or “Your anger is palpable today.” This is a very clear way of demonstrating that you understand and empathise with what your clients are feeling.
Building Rapport With Clients in Counselling

Active Listening Skills

Active listening focuses on the many forms of non-verbal communication such as the speaker’s tone of voice, timing, speed of talking, body language, and context. It encourages the counsellor to form an egalitarian, non-hierarchical relationship with their client in which they can listen without judgement.

Active listening is an important skill that trained counsellors must not only learn but also practice. When it is done well, active listening can build and maintain therapeutic alliances and bonds by demonstrating empathy to your clients and creating opportunities for healing and growth.

Active listening and empathy are very similar skills: for this reason, active listening is often referred to as the active part of empathetic listening. Active listening is one of the best skills counsellors can develop to improve in-session dynamics, particularly if they are working with clients that, to this point, have been difficult to reach. If a client has an unhelpful mindset or feels reluctant to open up to their counsellor, then this is the time for the counsellor to utilise their active listening skills.

Building Rapport With Clients in Counselling

Cultural Sensitivity and Rapport

We live in a wonderfully diverse society, and that is why cultural sensitivity plays such a key role in rapport-building in modern counselling. It is important that counsellors respect and embrace cultural differences to strengthen rapport.

All counsellors should be culturally sensitive to their clients, and this is an important way to build rapport. However, some counsellors specialise in offering culturally sensitive counselling to clients who have specific cultural needs. A culturally sensitive therapist follows guidelines for working with diverse groups of people and understands that racial, cultural, religious, gender, and sexual identities interact with one’s beliefs and behaviour.

Counsellors can respect and embrace cultural differences to strengthen rapport and to form bonds that will make their clients feel safe and secure even if they share different cultural backgrounds. Cultural differences should never be ignored or minimised. Therapists who successfully integrate cultural sensitivity practices into their treatment recognize and respect differences and see that they play a significant role in an individual’s lived experience.

Building Rapport With Clients in Counselling

Building Trust

Trust plays a key role in the relationship between a counsellor and their client. Establishing trust with a client should be your first goal when starting a therapy session. Your client should trust that you have their best interests at heart. That you will never share what they tell you outside of the therapy session. And that you will only ever recommend treatments that you feel will be beneficial given their unique needs.

Counsellors need not only to establish trust with their clients but also to maintain that trust over time. Some strategies that can be introduced to achieve this goal include

  • Showing your clients that you want to understand. Your desire to understand their thoughts and feelings is important. It demonstrates that they are valued and that you are approaching them with empathy. Feeling heard and understood builds trust.
  • Build trust slowly. Trust is something that develops over time. If the rapport is established too quickly then your clients may view this with suspicion. Make them feel relaxed and confident, and build trust over time until they are comfortable sharing difficult or intimate memories with you.
  • Create space. Your clients should be given space to withdraw when they want to: they should be the ones to dictate the speed of the sessions. By giving your client space to work at their own pace, you are building a trusting relationship.
Strategies for Establishing Boundaries in Counselling Relationships

Challenges in Rapport Building

Building rapport is not a straightforward process, and most counsellors will face challenges, particularly during the earliest sessions with a new client. Clients who have experienced trauma may be reluctant to open up to you, for example.

The main challenge many counsellors face in building rapport is that it can often take time. This means that your first sessions may feel slow, or like you aren’t making any progress. Your clients can seem withdrawn. But it’s important to remember that the progress you are making is in building rapport and building trust. It’s important that you are patient and don’t rush the process: acknowledge the frustration this can make you feel, particularly if you are limited in the number of sessions you have with a particular client, and then let it go to focus on their needs.

It’s also important to acknowledge that building rapport can be difficult if you don’t like your client or don’t emphasise with them. If you are counselling someone convicted of a crime you feel to be morally wrong, for example, this may impact your ability to build rapport. But you can disagree with your client and disapprove of their actions whilst still empathising with the life choices that drove them to those actions. This can be very difficult, particularly for new or inexperienced therapists, but it is an important skill to develop and one that may take time.

Building Rapport With Clients in Counselling

The Impact of Rapport on Counselling Outcomes

Building rapport with your clients is so much more important than you might think. A strong rapport will be a key factor in the effectiveness of your counselling sessions and can positively influence your clients.

Clients who have undergone counselling describe how therapeutic rapport has helped them to feel

  • Better able to disclose painful memories or information to their counsellor.
  • More comfortable discussing emotions and experiences both in and out of counselling sessions.
  • Better able to work through difficult issues and gain insight.
  • Safe with their counsellor and supported by them as they work through the counselling process.
Building Rapport With Clients in Counselling


We know that building rapport is a vitally important skill for counsellors but that it is not always easy. The stronger the rapport, and the bond of trust and understanding, between a counsellor and their client, the better the outcomes of the therapy sessions are likely to be.

No counsellor has ever fully completed their training and it is important to continue learning as the discipline evolves. With this in mind, counsellors and aspiring therapists should continue developing their rapport-building skills as an integral part of their practice. It is not always easy, but it is always both valuable and worthwhile.

If you are a counsellor with experience in building and maintaining rapport with your clients, why not share your tips or experiences below in our comments section?

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