Dealing with Deceptive Clients

By Ofer Zur, Ph.D.

Deceptive ClientsAt times, counselors and psychotherapists encounter clients whose participation in treatment includes the goal, often hidden, of enhancing their position in some type of legal case, such as acquiring disability benefits, obtaining custody of their children, winning a personal injury lawsuit or avoiding incarceration for a criminal conviction. Therapists are also likely to work with clients who have been “forced” into treatment by a spouse, employer, professional organization or court official. In these situations, it is not unreasonable to expect that such clients may attempt to obtain written statements or even in some cases, court testimony, from the counselor/therapist. The client may request, for example, statements from their counselor/therapist that the client has made more progress in treatment and/or exhibits less of the problem behavior than the counselor or therapists believes to be the case.

Two important ethical issues are raised by theses types of situations. The therapist is ethically required to do his/her best to avoid being manipulated by the client into making untrue statements on the client’s behalf. Possibly even more important is the ethical obligation of the therapist to do her/his best to avoid being used by the client to harm other persons.

Some facts about deception in psychotherapy:
  • In today’s world, there are clients whose participation in counseling or psychotherapy can involve a hidden agenda designed to enhance their position relative to some type of legal case.
  • Clients who obtain treatment with a hidden legal agenda can in some cases be expected to ask their counselor or therapist to make untrue statements regarding the nature of their problem and/or treatment progress.
  • There are many situations in which counselors/therapists need to be alert to the possibility of client deception/manipulation.
  • Many techniques, including both physiologically and psychologically based, exist for detecting deception.
  • Verbal content analysis, based on evaluating the words people use, has achieved significant reliability in differentiating between true and deceptive statements.
  • An empirically-based test, derived from the research literature and easily accessible to the generalist counselor or therapist, is provided in this course.
  • Confronting client deception can be difficult for both the client and therapist.
  • There are times when direct client confrontation may represent the most ethically-appropriate and clinically-effective strategy for dealing with this problem.
  • The question of where, when, why and how to confront client deception is carefully considered in this course.
  • Generally, it is important that therapists be very careful about entering dual relationships of therapist and evaluator.

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