In her 1989 article, Of Visitors, Complainants, and Customers, Insoo Kim Berg details three different types of “client-therapist relationships” (p. 21). Her wording is significant, because she is not labeling clients; she is describing them in terms of their relationship to the therapist, the process of therapy, and the problem. These three relationships have undergirded Solution-Focused Brief Therapy theory and interventions over the years, although they are not consistently discussed in newer works.
In this post, I present a review of these client types, and I explain their relevance to and usefulness for therapeutic sessions.
1 | The Visitor
The visitor often comes to therapy at another’s request. Some examples of a visitor include a child who’s brought to therapy by his parents, a wife who begins therapy at her husband’s insistence, or an employee who’s referred to therapy in order to keep her job. The main characteristics of the visitor relationship to therapy is that the visitor isn’t invested in change. He is willing to attend therapy, but this is most likely in order to please another. He may be willing to change, but not from personal motivation.
2 | The Complainant
The complainant is very aware of the problem and is affected by it, but she doesn’t see herself as contributing to the problem or its solution. The complainant is burdened by the problem, but she may see the solution as resting outside her influence. The complainant’s relationship to therapy is one of compliance--she will attend therapy in order to describe the problem, her frustrations with the problem, as well as those persons contributing to the problem; however, she is not yet able to see how her behavior could alleviate the problem.
3 | The Customer
The customer is the therapist’s ideal client type. The customer is ready and willing to solve the problem. He is aware of both his contribution to the problem and its solution and is invested in addressing his behavior. The customer will consider new ideas and be open to new ways of solving the problem. The customer’s relationship to therapy goes beyond compliance to one of active participation and collaboration.
Applying the 3 Types
What not to do
According to Kim Berg (1989) the three types are useful to the therapist, because the therapist can know how to interact within these relationships. For example, she recommends that tasks not be assigned to complainants or visitors, because they are not asking for change. The best approach with these client types is to affirm their current successes, so that they desire to remain in therapy and eventually either find something to work on (visitor), or discover their contribution to the problem, and their role in its solution (complainant). Kim Berg notes, “A client, like anyone else, is invested in doing things his own way and remaining faithful to his own ideas rather than simply accepting someone else’s. Thus, the therapist always needs to begin by respecting the client’s’ ideas and respecting his purposes and goals as the starting point of therapy” (p. 21).
The Role of Acceptance
It’s common for new and seasoned therapists to struggle with wanting the therapeutic process to be different than it is with particular clients. This struggle is often related to the pace of change for the client, or what the therapist interprets to be the client’s “lack of progress.” Sometimes, the frustration of a slow pace can be a real experience with a therapy customer, but it can also be the result of a mismatch between the therapist’s approach and the client’s motives for being in therapy. These client types remind us to consider whether we started therapy well--on the client's terms.
It can help to periodically ask ourselves, “For what is the client a customer?” This leads us to explore the client’s reasons for being in therapy.
Jenny came to therapy, because she is “unhappy with her life.” During the first session, you learn that Jenny and her husband had a fight recently. She mentioned that her husband believes that she is depressed, and he is “fed up” with her lack of motivation to leave the house. He told her that she needed to go to therapy, or “he wasn’t sure what he was going to do.” Jenny explains that she took this comment as a threat that he was going to leave her if she didn’t come to therapy. When you ask about her goals for therapy, she has difficulty articulating a specific goal. She begins to cry and says she loves her husband and doesn’t want to lose him.
What is Jenny's relationship to therapy?
Jenny has a visitor relationship to therapy at the moment, because she doesn’t currently have a goal for therapy, nor is she personally invested in change. (A good systemic therapist would work with Jenny to get her husband to join therapy, but this is another post for another day.) According to Kim Berg, the best approach with a visitor is to listen, sympathize with the client “being forced to see you, and compliment him on whatever he is doing that is good for him . . .” (p. 21). In Jenny’s case, you might affirm her choice to come to therapy, her care for her husband, her willingness to act based on her husband’s needs, as well as anything that she is already doing in her life that is positive and meaningful to her. The main goal with visitor is to establish a meaningful connection, so that she is interested in returning to therapy. Over time, your goal would shift to helping the client articulate a personal goal.
The Solution-Focused client types, detailed by Insoo Kim Berg (1989), can help therapists know how to begin and proceed in therapy with individuals, couples, and families, because they provide therapists with a framework for assessing and utilizing clients' motivation for change in order to establish, build, and maintain therapeutic progress.
Not sure how to use the client types in your sessions? Download the Solution-Focused Client Types Cheat Sheet:
- What is one thing you gained from this post?
- How will you use the client types in your work this week?
Let me know in the comments below.
Berg, I. K. (1989). Of visitors, complainants, and customers: Is there really such a thing as “resistance?” Family Therapy Networker, 13(1): 21.