As a mental health counselor, it's best if you can build an entire toolbox of techniques for doing initial interviews with prospective patients. Different patients may require a wide scope of techniques to get them to the point where they can start trusting you and opening up. For example, you’ll want to develop different techniques for substance abusers than you use for victims of domestic violence. Also, someone who really doesn’t want to be there needs to be handled differently than a client who’s been on a waiting list for your services.
Bridging Traumatic Barriers
You want to tread very lightly with prospective clients who have been through traumatic experiences, such as refugees from another country who have been subject to torture or extreme violence. You don’t want to scare them during the initial interview, so use techniques that are measured and respectful. Begin the conversation in the waiting room where the client has already achieved a level of comfort. Ask how she’d like to be addressed, explain the nature of the interview, and reassure her that everything she tells you is confidential. Work your interview questions so they don’t sound judgmental. Leave the notepad alone to decrease the intimidation level and proceed slowly through your questions.
Getting Them Motivated
Motivational interviewing techniques are especially useful when interviewing addicts and alcoholics. Use a gentle style that relies on empathy and reflective listening skills. The point of the motivational interview is that you want the substance abuser to come to the conclusion that she needs help without any pushing on your part. She needs to figure why she’s there, then she must either ask for help or finally agree that she needs to get help. You’ll act like more of a consultant who agrees with and supports your client’s desire to change. If she puts up resistance, avoid arguing with her or pushing her. Instead, remain patient and attentive.
Building a Team
The most effective therapy occurs when you and your client work as a team. That means building a relationship based on trust and mutual respect. Being a good listener is one of the most important techniques you can use to build trust. The right kinds of questions during the initial interview set the tone for the relationship as well as the rest of the therapy. In the interview, you want to get to know the client and what her main goals are. By asking relevant questions and giving feedback after each response, you let her know that you’re listening and you really do care. Understand that she may be testing you in the interview. To overcome resistance, you’ll need to remain patient and keep digging until you get to the real reason she is seeking your help.
Just Asking the Questions
Another technique for mental health interviewing is more diagnostic in nature and less conversational. Using a list of pre-determined questions for all your clients allows you to prepare a treatment plan according to set guidelines. The agency or facility that you work for might provide you with a list of questions you must ask all your clients during the initial interview. The World Health Organization recommends using the composite international diagnostic interview to get the most effective and thorough results, which ultimately lead to a better diagnosis and proper treatment. The interview is long but considers everything from family history to detailed explanations of symptoms.
Linda Ray is an award-winning journalist with more than 20 years reporting experience. She's covered business for newspapers and magazines, including the "Greenville News," "Success Magazine" and "American City Business Journals." Ray holds a journalism degree and teaches writing, career development and an FDIC course called "Money Smart."