In the counselling world, this is a question that often divides private counsellors.
In one camp there are the counsellors who staunchly believe that offering a free first session is essential.
This session is said to give the client an opportunity to check that they feel comfortable enough to open up and work with the counsellor without them wasting their money.
Many counsellors encourage clients to try out lots of free sessions before deciding which counsellor is right for them.
I used to be one of these counsellors. I used to offer a free first session.
I stopped doing this several years ago and this blog, I hope, explains why I changed my thinking.
Counsellors need to be paid.
For counsellors in private practice there is no funding to pay our salaries. If we work for free we cannot cover our costs and cannot continue working.
The question may be asked:
Can you not just give the first session for free, then charge for subsequent sessions?
We are not shoes that can be tried on for free then put back on the shelf; our time and energy is precious.
This culture of giving free sessions is something that counselling directories and other media sources perpetuate, which continues to feed the expectation of a free session. Many private counsellors, therefore, start out not even questioning this practice, misguidedly (and detrimentally to counsellor and client alike, for reasons I give below) believing it a considerate and generous thing to offer.
I used to believe it was considerate to offer this until I had so many enquiries for free sessions that I was burning out. I had space for new clients and needed to take more on to pay my bills, so I kept on booking in clients for free sessions.
But what happened was what you can imagine often happens with free services.
Some people didn’t turn up and some came with the expectation that I was going to fix all their problems in 50 minutes.
One week I had 9 enquiries, so I booked in the first 6 who contacted me and squeezed them into my diary. My week was too full!
3 of the 6 people didn’t turn up and 2 didn’t continue as they were looking for CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), a type of counselling I don’t offer. This left 1 person who wanted to start counselling sessions.
That week left me exhausted and out of pocket.
At the time I was working in-person and paying £12 an hour for room rental while giving these sessions for free.
If I had charged for the first session, I suspect the people who didn’t turn up wouldn’t have booked, and those who wanted a different type of counselling would have asked in an email or checked out my website. Had this been the case, I would have been able to see all the people who were ready to meet me.
Charging for first sessions means that if you really want to work with me I am more likely to have the space to offer you a first session.
First sessions with clients can often be incredibly tiring and full on for counsellors as there are many details to take in when we first meet and begin to develop a connection. I take lots of notes and ask lots of questions and it is just not practicable to do all of this for free. You can read more about what happens in an introductory session with me here.
There can also often be things that come up in a first session that I want/need to explore and get support from my clinical supervisor with.
Not charging for these sessions means that I have no funds to pay my supervisor who likewise cannot be expected to work for free.
I have also found that with the offer of free first sessions people are less likely to have taken the time to properly check me out. By this I mean looking at my website, watching my videos, reading my blogs and looking me up on Twitter.
If you are looking for a counsellor I would recommend doing all of these things to help you get a sense of who the counsellor is and to determine the extent of knowledge and experience they have. On my website I try to share as much detail as possible, to help you make an informed choice. You can read my other blogs here.
What if clients have questions before handing over money?
I am totally open to you emailing me questions and often spend time answering enquiries. If you have a question, please do get in touch here.
It may be that you want to know, for example, if I work short term or long term, how often sessions last, or where I trained. All of this is on my website already but if you can’t find it please do ask me.
By no longer offering free sessions I am able to fully dedicate my time and energy to working with my current clients.
This means that if you choose to work with me you will know my stamina has not been zapped by meeting lots of new clients each week.
Instead, I now work with fewer clients and charge a higher fee so I can offer the best possible service to you and not a watered-down version.
Paying to have a first session with me will give you the freedom to meet me and take the time to explore whether you will feel comfortable starting counselling sessions with me. I, too, will take the time to learn about you and what is going on for you, so that together we can work out if counselling with me might help.
It’s important to say that by paying for a first session, you are by no means committed to having to start sessions.
In fact I find that when people are given something for free they can sometimes feel awkward and obliged to continue even if it’s not quite right for them. They may feel in some way indebted and not want to ‘let you down’.
If, following a first session with me, you decide not to start sessions – for whatever reason – that is totally fine with me.
I won’t be offended! I respect your choice.
First sessions are designed to be open and leave you free to make a choice at the end or afterwards. You can learn more about what happens in an introductory session here.
You might be wondering how you could afford to shop around if you had to pay for, possibly, several first sessions.
Choosing the right counsellor for you is important. However, this doesn’t mean you have to meet 10 counsellors for a first session. Even if you did find 10 counsellors offering free first sessions, this would be exhausting, emotional and very time-consuming.
Do you feel a connection?
Some people get a strong feeling of who their first-choice counsellor is and are keen to meet them on the understanding that, if there is a rapport, they continue; if not, they look for an alternative.
Other people shortlist 2 or 3 counsellors and then book in a first session with each. The problem with this option is that by the time you have met with each counsellor several weeks could have passed, meaning that if your counsellor of choice turns out to be the first one you saw, they may not have space left by the time you make your decision.
I’m afraid to say the good counsellors do book up fast.
If you are thinking about having some counselling and like the look of what I offer – and you agree it’s fair to pay me – then you can book your introductory session here.
Professional help is important, you do not need to suffer alone.