Key Takeaways

  • Starting therapy can be nerve-racking for many clients, but therapists can take steps to ease nerves and smooth out the experience starting in the first session.
  • Identifying clients’ strengths during the intake session allows therapists to empower them to leverage those qualities throughout the therapeutic process.
  • Educating clients on the intake process is a chance for therapists to explain their therapeutic approach and how specific techniques or interventions may align with a client’s goal. 
Intake sessions are an important part of the therapeutic process. They may not feel as satisfying as a breakthrough moment, but they’re a therapist’s first opportunity to make a positive impression on a new client and lay the foundation for a successful therapeutic relationship moving forward.  Establishing a therapeutic relationship while collecting clinical information can feel like a balancing act, but it’s completely possible with a little preparation, education, and self-regulation. 

Six key strategies for a successful intake session 

Intake sessions are a great opportunity to set the tone for the therapeutic relationship.

1. Prepare for the session in advance 

A therapist’s work with a new client begins even before the first appointment. Prior to the intake session, it’s important to prepare both yourself and your client to help create a successful session.  This might include:
  • Organizing the necessary paperwork, like HIPAA forms, medical history documents, and informed consent forms
  • Reviewing client information and history (if accessible before the intake session)
  • Preparing a list of questions to help guide the conversation
  • Managing client expectations by sharing what to expect during the first session
Most therapists will prepare a list of items to cover during an intake session. Here are a few common questions that are used to understand a client’s background, strengths, stressors, and goals.
  • Why are you seeking therapy at this time?
  • What do you expect from therapy?
  • Have you been in therapy before? If so, what was that experience like?
  • What are some of your strengths? 
  • Do you have supportive people in your life? If so, who?
  • How do you cope with stress?
  • Do you have any therapy goals?

2. Consider first impressions

Meeting someone for the first time can be nerve-racking, especially when it involves sharing personal information about yourself. As a therapist, it’s your job to create a warm and inviting environment for clients throughout the therapeutic process, starting with the intake session.  Here are a few tips to create a warm and professional first impression for new clients.
  • Check your surroundings to ensure that your telehealth workspace creates a private and soothing atmosphere
  • Welcome clients with a genuine smile, gentle tone of voice, and appropriate eye contact.
  • Embody professionalism by dressing appropriately, being punctual for appointments, and respecting clients’ privacy and confidentiality.
  • Remember that therapy can be daunting, especially for new clients, so take the time to check in with clients throughout the session and assure them that anxiety and nerves are normal.

3. Educate clients on the purpose of intake sessions

As a therapist, you know that an intake session is to help you learn more about a client, what brought them to therapy, and their mental and behavioral health goals. You’re the expert in the session, which means you have a responsibility to educate your clients on how the intake process works. Even if a client has previously been in therapy, it’s still best practice to explain how and why you personally conduct your intake sessions with clients.  Discussing the intake process is a chance for you to provide a clear rationale for your therapeutic approach and better explain how specific techniques or interventions may align with a client’s goal. You can also discuss your procedures and preferences, like your cancellation policy, emergency contact requirements, and how you typically handle insurance reimbursement.  If at any point it seems like the conversation is getting too into the weeds on a particular presenting problem, it’s fine to gently guide it back by saying something like this: “Thank you for sharing that. My hope is that if we continue to work together, we can further explore that topic in future sessions. I see that we have X minutes left, so I’m going to take a minute to ask a few more questions. I want to make sure I thoroughly understand your needs and expectations for therapy so that I can best support you next session.”

4. Use a strengths-based approach 

A strengths-based approach to therapy acknowledges and celebrates a client’s existing strengths, resources, and positive attributes. The goal is to instill hope, reduce harmful symptoms or thought patterns, and improve overall quality of life. By identifying a client’s strengths during an intake session, you have an opportunity to empower them to leverage those qualities throughout the therapeutic process. Emphasize that therapy is a collaborative process and that you’ll work with them to set realistic goals, develop a long-term plan, and overcome barriers using their strengths. You’re committed to helping them create positive change in their lives, and it’s important to be patient and supportive as they work towards their goals.  Not sure how to get started with a strengths-based approach? Ask about a client’s hobbies, talents, past achievements, and even their support systems to help identify their existing strengths. 

5. Practice self-regulation and self-awareness

When working with clients, therapists should always think before they act or react.  Your tone, demeanor, and body language can all impact a client’s experience, so it’s important to practice self-regulation and self-awareness.  By maintaining a calm and composed presence during a session, you’re establishing a secure foundation for clients to explore their emotional vulnerabilities. Self-regulation can also help ensure that you’re maintaining professional boundaries while actively engaging in the treatment. Similarly, active listening is another technique that therapists can use to show clients that they’re alert, engaged, and listening attentively. Active listening techniques can help clients feel more comfortable opening up during an intake session. 

6. Consider how you conclude the intake session

How you conclude the conversation with a new client is just as important as how you start it. Once you’ve reviewed a client’s background, health history, and potential therapy goals, you can start to wrap up the session. This usually takes about 10 minutes and includes: 
  • Summarizing the key points, goals, and agreements
  • Addressing any additional questions or concerns
  • Positively reinforcing their decision to seek therapy
  • Planning for future sessions and follow-ups, including scheduling the next session 
  • If necessary, referring clients to higher levels of care

Meet Rula, your teletherapy partner from start to finish

Intake sessions are an important part of the therapeutic process, but it can be challenging to gather the necessary clinical information while nurturing a new therapeutic relationship.  That’s why Rula provides therapists with access to clinical consultation hours and a peer support network to help them create the best teletherapy experience and environment for clients. Whether it’s advice on improving intake sessions, understanding mandated reporting, or managing risk with teletherapy, Rula is here to help.  Visit our website to learn more about how to work with Rula to create the best teletherapy experience and environment for your clients.

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