How to respond to clients in pain

Support work is unique and vital interpersonal work. Often you are required to be around people when they are distressed or in emotional or physical pain. It is not unusual to feel powerless in these situations, yet also have a strong wish to help in some way. Compassionate listening and responding to people in pain offers a way you can reduce distress in your clients. If you find your self at a loss of how to assist a client in distress some of these tips might help.

The first step of a compassionate response to someone in pain is to listen to the other person and let this person know you are listening, especially to his or her feelings. This involves putting aside your discomfort and your automatic, instinctive response and letting people talk in what ever way they need to. Letting them know you are listening simply involves paraphrasing back to them what you have heard them say, particularly focusing on the feelings expressed.

Once the person in pain knows that you are listening, you can choose from several specific categories of response to accompany the active listening described above. These include:

Offering support

“How can I help you through this?” People in pain often know the help they need, but it may be hard for them to ask for it.

Asking for elaboration

“Tell me more about it,” or “Then what happened?” Sometimes people in pain need to tell their story, and this telling itself can alleviate some of the pain.

Exploring fears or worst-case scenarios

What are your fears?” “What is the worst that can come from this?” Clarification of the worst case can enable someone to focus on a more realistic possibility.

Reducing isolation

It helps to say “together we can get through this”. Often feelings of isolation accompany intense emotional or physical pain. Reducing that sense of isolation can facilitate a path to healing.

Encouraging problem solving

“What might you do about it?” People can experience unsolicited advice as intrusive or infantilising. Encouraging problem solving stimulates their own abilities to determine what they need to do and is usually experienced as empowering.

Eliciting additional support

It may help to say, “is there anyone else you could talk to about this? There is a direct relationship between social and emotional support and improved physical and emotional health. Helping people to think of other support in their lives can also reduce a sense of isolation.

Stimulating coping resources

Ask “How have you coped with this in the past?”. Remembering a previous success can stimulate optimism and remind people of their coping strategies.

Remember if you are feeling upset or overwhelmed when working with a client seek support for yourself from your manager or HR. You can’t help anyone else if you don’t first take care of yourself.


Source: Dr Andrew Sinclair, Health Psychologist from Independence Australia

If you have concerns for your client’s well-being, please let them know Independence Australia offers a counselling and psychology service for eligible people with a disability. Click here for more information.