What boundaries must be taken into account when starting a new helping relationship?
Prior to the commencement of any new helping relationship, it is vital that clear boundaries are established between the helper and the individual seeking help. A ‘boundary’ refers to an unofficial rule about what should/should not be done. This ensures that both parties ‘know where they stand’ moving forward (i.e., they know what to expect), and can progress successfully in the creation and maintenance of a trusting relationship. Boundaries also serve to protect both the helper and the client by ensuring their safety.
There are lots of different boundaries that can be set, however the decision regarding which ones will be set is determined by the type of helping relationship. For example, NHS funded counselling sessions might have very different norms/boundaries compared to private care. While sessions funded by the NHS typically last for six sessions with each session being one hour in duration, sessions accessed privately can last considerably longer than this, since the client is the decision maker and can choose to pay for as many or as little hours/sessions as they feel necessary. This is where the boundaries differ between the two. If an NHS funded counsellor was to start offering two-hour sessions and agreed to continue providing sessions indefinitely, they would be crossing a boundary. The same could not be said for a privately funded counsellor, however, since they do not have the same rules and regulations governing their practice.
Aside from the duration of the relationship and the duration of each session, as discussed above, other boundaries that should be considered in helping relationships include- duration of phone calls, limits of confidentiality, appropriate touching, response to emails, and strategies for managing certain situations.
Setting boundaries regarding the duration of sessions and phone calls is advised in helping relationships since it provides consistency and avoids confusion, something which is crucially important for both the helper and their client. The client should feel comfortable knowing that their sessions will not be ‘cut short’, therefore providing them with a sense of security. Setting boundaries for the duration of sessions can also prove useful for helpers and clients since it allows them to decide what they would like to cover in each session, aiding in the setting of objectives.
Confidentiality is another boundary that must be considered, since it is vital that clients feel able to talk to their helper honestly and openly without fearing that the information which they provide will be disclosed to a third party. To increase the chance of clients feeling comfortable enough to share potentially highly sensitive and personal information with their helper, helpers should ensure that they explain, before the first session, that their information will remain confidential. They must however be sure to explain any instances in which confidentiality may need to be broken (situations where the client is at risk to themselves or others.) It is important that clients fully understand their right to confidentiality since this is another key component necessary for creating trusting relationships.
The latter point (strategies for managing certain situations) is a boundary that can change based on the policy of individual organisations. If, for example, someone was to present evidence of having self-harmed, the appropriate course of action must be carefully considered, especially due to the sensitive nature of such a situation. It is due to this very reason, the sensitivity of helping relationships, that clear boundaries must be set and abided by at all times.
How to agree objectives for a new helping relationship
It is essential that objectives/goals are agreed at the start of every new helping relationship. This is to aid in the creation of a plan moving forward in which an individual’s progress can be tracked and easily recognised/celebrated.
Despite its importance, setting objectives at the start of any new relationship, let alone a helping one, is often an incredibly difficult feat to accomplish. The reason why this can be so challenging is because the client’s view of what they want to achieve may not be realistic. The helper would therefore have to sensitively explain why their goals might not be realistic and instead help them to create new ones. If the helper and client are unable to agree on a sensible goal, the relationship would fail to work. Active listening is therefore an extremely important skill to have in this context. Both the helper and the client must be prepared to listen to each other and appreciate each other’s point of view, before considering what has been said and forming their own opinion on the matter. Skills such as this should be demonstrated in the setting of all objectives.
Another reason why setting objectives often proves difficult is due to the limited knowledge of each other at the start of a relationship meaning the client might find it difficult to trust their helper, and the helper might find it difficult trying to ascertain what help their client needs. To overcome some of these difficulties that often arise at the start of new relationships, objectives should be loosely set to avoid anyone feeling disheartened if they are not achieved. The setting of realistic and loose objectives should serve to motivate the client to commit to maintaining positive change.
To set objectives, however loose they might be, negotiations must take place between the helper and the client. The first stage for a helper is to determine what it is their client wants from the relationship. Helpers should know what their client wants to gain from sessions before any objectives are set, to ensure that they can work together to achieve a common goal. With this important information, often retrieved from the results of an initial assessment, helpers should then discuss their time and resource availability so that a structured schedule/plan of action can be developed. Any boundaries must also be shared and agreed upon in these early stages of a helping relationship.
Throughout the second stage of setting objectives, helpers should ask their clients lots of questions for two reasons. Firstly, they should ask questions to clarify the facts with their client, ensuring that they fully understand what they wish to achieve through the sessions and, secondly, they should ask questions to encourage deeper self-reflection to take place (on the client’s behalf.)
When the underlying reason behind a client seeking help has been determined, helpers should move onto stage three, whereby they actively work with their client to devise some objectives. All objectives set here should be SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound), to increase the likelihood of the client succeeding in meeting their goals which acts as a powerful form of motivation, encouraging them to remain committed to the relationship and giving them something ‘concrete’ to work towards.
After the setting of objectives, the helper should consider summarising what has been discussed during the days session to ensure that their client feels comfortable with what has been agreed on. Ending sessions with a chance to reflect and summarise provides clients with a valuable opportunity to ask any questions/add any additional comments that could be discussed in their next session. Knowing what they wish to focus more of their time/attention on will not only help the client themselves, but their helper too who would be able to get organised and well prepared for their next session together, allowing both the client and their helper to get the most out of their limited time together.