Sunday, September 04, 2016

Should therapist use client to gather information on someone else?

A psychotherapist was referred a client by a former colleague. The client, a friend of the former colleague, was looking for a therapist who could help her sort through some issues. Over the course of several months of meeting the psychotherapist and client built a strong rapport by focusing on the client's issues.

The psychotherapist learned during those months that the former colleague was having some health issues. She tried to contact her former colleague with no success. Growing concerned, she asked other mutual colleagues if they had heard directly from the former colleague. None had.

Now, the psychotherapist wonders how appropriate it might be to ask the client in passing how the former colleague is doing. I suspect the psychotherapist knows the answer to her question, but asks it anyway out of concern for the former colleague.

While most licensed therapists have some sort of professional code of conduct to which they adhere, I'm not sure that the code would specifically address the psychotherapist's question she asks here.

What the psychotherapist should remember, and, again, I suspect she does, is that her relationship with her client is built on one that focuses on the client's needs, not on the psychotherapist's or on her former colleague's. By asking the client how the psychotherapist's former client is doing, she shifts the focus of their relationship away from the client's needs and onto her own. Granted, psychotherapists are only human and have needs too, but in the therapeutic relationship, the right focus seems like it should be on the client's needs.

The right thing would be to refrain from asking the client about the former colleague's condition.

Given that the client had a pre-existing relationship with the former colleague and was her good friend, however, there's a chance that the client herself might bring up the former colleague -- particularly since the client knows the psychotherapist also had a pre-existing relationship with the former colleague. If this happens, then the right thing is for the psychotherapist to let the client talk and to engage her in a discussion about the former colleague in a way that stays focused on the client's needs.

The psychotherapist's concern about her former colleague comes from a place of concern and compassion. Her intentions about wanting to know how she is are good. But she should not let her compassion for her former colleague interfere with the work she is doing with her client.

If the psychotherapist is truly concerned about the former colleague's well-being, she should figure out a way to check in on her without violating the trusting relationship she has built with her client. But at some point, if the former colleague doesn't respond to calls or emails, the psychotherapist might want to take that as a sign that the former colleague is not prepared to discuss whatever it is that is going on. The psychotherapist might want to be prepared to let things lie until the former colleague is ready to respond.

The psychotherapist is better trained than I am to entertain what might be motivating the former colleague not to respond. But she should honor the boundaries she's built with her client and those that the former colleague establishes. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 


1 comment:

Azalea Annie said...

Well said. The therapist who would ask such a question is a therapist who should re-read the ethics of his/her profession. Seriously, that this question was asked means the therapist is edging towards the line that cannot be crossed, unless the therapist has reason to believe the former colleague is a danger to himself or others.