The importance of challenge in the therapeutic relationship

We have been working on our receptive skills for the main part of the year thus far, how we hold the work of clients. It is important to remember that it is critical to cultivate a degree of restraint in order to be able to reflect back appropriately. Trainee therapists quickly realise that you don’t need to effectively do anything in the therapeutic relationship. We resist the urge to step in but rather just listen. We are building a containing space around the client to help them develop and to become independent.

We are robbing the client if we step in too quickly. We are providing a steady (constant) relationship that allows them to see their ideal in themselves. The relationship will begin to change through the transference. Receptivity is the basis of clients trust. It can, however, be ruined by an inappropriate and untimely comment. There is a place to step in but this must be judged very carefully. We can’t challenge before we have learned to listen.

Defences serve a purpose with clients and we must tread carefully but challenge we must or we will risk collusion with the client. Clients can remain in the unconscious so challenges could be around what is happening in the room (payment issues, lateness etc.). Clients are not our mates.They might like to see us becoming friends, but we are not friends.

Conditions for challenges

Are they ready? It is important to work with the material to gain an assessment of the right time to intervene.

Can they hear? Clients might have intense shame and feelings of worthlessness. There might be a shock of being confronted by the shadow. Clients might act out rather than work through the difficult material. Research has shown that negative transference is best to establish bond.

There is no magic wand. This is one of the great realisations a client can have. The ideal is self-challenge. What is the story behind the story that the client is bringing? Bodywork and meditation only give us images and these must reflect the client narrative.

Further reading:

The therapeutic relationship
Transference and counter transference
Positive transfer and Negative transfer/Anti-Learning of Problem Solving Skills
Challenging in the room 

About Noel Bell

Psychotherapist in London. Check out my blog posts and more at
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