I hear, on occasion, from my own clients that they have experienced upsetting things while working with another professional. Sometimes my clients ask me – “Is it ok if my therapist/mediator/attorney does X thing? It bugs me, but am I making too big a deal of it?”
There are a number of things a professional might do while working with you that are annoying, thoughtless, unprofessional, or even hurtful. It is ALWAYS OK to tell a professional whom you have hired to provide you with a service that something is bothering you about THEIR behavior. If you are not sure if the professional intended to be hurtful, or realizes the impact their comment, habit, or behavior has had on you, it is a good idea to bring it up, let the person know what is bothering you, and if possible, give them an example of when they did/said that upset you. Or even better, if you feel brave, point it out in the moment.
For example: “You know, you have started our meetings late more than once, and it is upsetting to me. Today you are starting 15 minutes late. My time is important, and I have been prompt in showing up when you tell me we will be starting. It is important to me that we start on time. “
If the professional you are working with responds defensively, makes you feel guilty for raising the issue, minimizes your concern, ignores your concern, or repeats the behavior, it’s probably time to consider finding someone new to work with.
If the professional really listens, takes you seriously, apologizes – even if they offer a sensible excuse – and commits to doing better or to never repeating the mistake – then your working relationship might get stronger, and the problem might not just be alleviated, it might lead to a deeper trust and an even better working relationship with that professional. People who can acknowledge mistakes or bad habits, and who really try to change them because they care about others, are valuable in any arena.
Here is a list of professional bad habits – or worse, unethical behaviors – that warrant serious attention and should make you consider discussion with your professional, or a transfer to a new professional.
- If the professional ever makes a sexual comment or behaves in a manner that makes you feel uncomfortable you have the right to address that comment or behavior immediately, to stop the meeting if you feel uncomfortable or threatened, and to fire the professional on the spot. In this situation, consulting with another professional about the incident is probably a good idea, to get some guidance on whether and how to file a professional complaint with the relevant licensing board.
- If the professional suggests bartering their services for something you have to offer – artwork, objects of value, your own services – you should think carefully about this. Bartering is considered unethical in many professional fields, and can lead to a confusing kind of relationship. It can also blur the sense of fairness about fees and value.
- If the professional takes phone calls during time you are meeting, while they are “on the clock”, you have a right to ask them to stop. (A rare emergency situation that requires them to answer the phone briefly during a meeting with you is acceptable – if they explain this to you in advance, and with apology for interrupting your time.)
- If the professional is chronically late, by more than a minute or two, you have a right to bring this up. Again – a rare tardiness can be explained, and forgiven. Constantly running late for one’s clients is NOT ok.
- While clients often become friendly with professionals who work with them, no professional should spend much time talking about them selves while they are supposed to be helping you. Some professionals are more “transparent” and disclosing than others – if your professional talks too openly about their own life and makes you feel uncomfortable, or if your time is being spent listening to them talk about their own lives – something is wrong in your working relationship. Try to bring that up, and discuss it.
- If the professional does not return your calls, chronically “forgets” to get back to you on important issues, or fails to send out notes, or minutes to a meeting that should require them, you have a right to complain, and ask for more responsive behavior. Your professional may explain that they are not able to return calls quickly during their work week, and that is certainly acceptable, but you deserve to have a respectful conversation about how best to communicate between sessions, and what you can expect in terms of response time.
- Professionals should be mindful of your privacy and confidentiality. They should not talk aloud about other clients in public spaces, they should not conduct meetings with you with the door open, and they should not leave files or notes about clients out in clear view for other clients to see. If you notice any of this behavior, you have a right to point it out, and note your discomfort. You can let the professional know that your own privacy and confidentiality is important to you – and therapists/mediators/attorneys are ethically bound to protect both.
- Professionals should maintain healthy boundaries. This means your individual therapist should not provide individual therapy to your spouse, your children, and/or your parents – unless you and your therapist have thoroughly discussed WHY such a decision might make sense in your specific treatment, and you have decided you feel comfortable with this. Attorneys and mediators have less stringent boundary ethics and often represent different people in one family. But it is ALWAYS ok to talk to your professional about any discomfort or concern you have about their working with someone else you know.
- Professionals should be clear about their fees up front, follow clear and ethical billing practices, and answer all of your questions about fees, billing and payment. They should not allow you to build up huge balances owed without discussing with you why you are having difficulty paying them on time – it is not healthy for clients, nor good for professional relationships, when the professional is working without pay, and the client is going deep into debt without any discussion about how that debt will be paid over time.
- Finally – if the professional working with you ever says, or does anything that feels hurtful to you — you should try to discuss this with them. People make mistakes, and can say or do thoughtless things, without being malicious. It is possible for misinterpretations, or miscommunications to occur. But it is ALWAYS ok for you, as the client, to note to your professional that something he or she did or said was bothersome to you, and felt inconsiderate.
As I said in the beginning – if your professional listens, understands, apologizes and acknowledges your feelings, such a discussion can be very helpful. It might even create a stronger, and more effective working relationship for you – and help you gain confidence and assertiveness about your own rights in the relationship.