As of late, I have been helping a couple of colleagues brainstorm about effective ways to build a clientele. One of the questions I’ve been asking myself is, “Where’s the ethical line between effective networking and subtle manipulation for psychotherapists when connecting with people in other contexts and encouraging them to use our services?” As professionals in the mental health field, we can use our knowledge of emotional connections and relationship building for good or bad. Note the following story.

Dr. B and Dr. S were somewhat new professionals in their related fields. As one of their collaborative efforts to give to the community, they facilitated a book discussion on a mental health issue. The topic was one that caught people’s interest and was an area of clinical expertise for Dr. B and a growing one for Dr. S.  The group met over a six week period.  The group members enjoyed the conversation and each other. Dr. B felt gratification in providing this free service to the community. Dr. S appreciated learning more about the topic from Dr. B’s training. As the six weeks were coming to a close, Dr. S suggested that the two of them launch a therapy group from the book discussion group. It seemed like the natural thing to do and besides, said Dr. S, “The group members really like the topic and us as facilitators, let’s get ‘em while they’re hot!”

Is Dr. S’s idea a good strategy for building clientele? Or is this “let’s get ‘em while they’re hot” more like the bait-and-switch strategy used in sales.

There are important questions to explore. What was the purpose of the book discussion group in the first place? What was the intent of the facilitators?  Was it to build a relationship with people around an emotional charged topic that could foster group dependency? Did the group members know that a therapy group was a potential outcome of their meeting together? Should Dr. B and Dr. S pursue this idea, could the group members make a clear or informed choice about whether a therapy group was right for them? 

The colleague who told me this story asked what I thought. Should Dr. B and Dr. S pursue the group therapy idea inviting the book group members to attend? If so, how should they do it in an ethical way? Or is the idea and proposal ethically flawed from the start?

This idea of having a group evolve from the book club might be very beneficial to the members of the book club BUT at least 3 steps need to be  in place for Dr. B and Dr. S to do this ethically.

1) A "cooling off" period. Group members need some space in time before being contacted about a possible therapy group. 

2) Clear criteria for group membership needs to be established.

3) Screening for group participation is an absolute necessity.


About the Author

Sharon K. Anderson

Sharon K. Anderson, Ph.D., is a Professor of Counseling and Career Development at Colorado State University.

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