How To Get Your Client To Listen To You

By Zainab Fazal, M.ADS, BCBA

bSci21 Contributing Writer

If you were asked what the most important skill a professional should have, I’d bet many of you would say the ability to build relationships with your clients. And you would be right. In the business world, building rapport with your clients and employees can translate to better business outcomes. In academia, building rapport with students can lead to more positive teaching experiences, and possibly better student performance. In therapeutic relationships, having good rapport with clients sets the stage for better learning outcomes. In all of these, and other arenas, establishing a good rapport helps facilitate behavioural change.

Having the skills to establish a positive rapport with your client is an essential component of any professional’s repertoire. That is true in just about every industry, including those working in the field of Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA). When starting a career in behaviour analysis, rapport-building skills are often taught at the onset, especially when working with children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder.

The term that is often used in ABA is known as pairing. It refers to the process of pairing the therapist as a reinforcer, and involves the therapist delivering all the possible reinforcers to the client. The delivery of preferred items or activities are non-contingent during the pairing process. Sundberg & Partington (1998) discuss pairing as engaging with a child in fun ways while freely providing items and activities the child prefers, all before presenting any tasks. Remove the behavioural jargon, and here’s what pairing means: having fun, and providing what the client likes, for FREE!

So how do you pair with a client? Here are some basic guidelines and tips, all of which can be modified when working with different age groups, and especially applicable to a therapeutic or teaching relationship.

Environmental Changes – All of the things the client likes should be in your possession, so you become the person they approach to access the goodies! Remember not to require the client to ask you (i.e., mand) for the item you have.

Use Potential Reinforcers – Interview parents, teachers, and caregivers to find out what the client likes, ask them to fill out a potential reinforcer profile, and observe your client. Then use those items, activities, and edibles during your pairing session. For example, if you find out your client loves the park, take her to the park and play with her.  If you’ve got what she likes, she’s more likely to approach you!

Absolutely No Demands – During the first few pairing sessions, no instructions necessary! The point of pairing with your client is to build rapport, to get him to like you, and establish instructional control. If you’re the one who always tells them to do something, they may not like hanging out with you as much!

Pairing, Pairing, and some more Pairing – When working with a client, it is not sufficient to pair for the first few sessions and hope you’re client always likes you, the materials, or the environment. Practitioners should be pairing, at least for a few minutes, every day.

Have Fun – Play with your client, HOW he wants to play. If your client likes to line up blocks (and not build with them), then line them up with him.

Gradually Increase Demands – When you first start working with a client, spend more time pairing with your client, no need to rush into giving instructions. As you build rapport, slowly introduce instructions in a way that the client may not even realize you’ve switched to “working.”

Use Verbal Modeling – When you’re giving the client the item, name it (i.e., label) so client’s who are developing a verbal repertoire hear what the item is called. But don’t make them say it, remember, it’s fun times for the client!

All of this is important. Why? Because you want your client to like you, come to you, ultimately listen to you (i.e., instructional control), and NOT run away from you! There are several research articles discussing pairing, and one in particular that I recommend you get your hands on, Kelly et al., 2015. In this recent study, the investigators were interested in the impacts of pre-session pairing (i.e., before you start giving instructions). They had some good stuff to report – fewer challenging behaviours and some increased academic responding! Check out also what Taylor & Fisher (2010) have to say about effective treatment and building rapport.

So now you know about pairing, and you are eager to learn more, right? (I hope you said yes!) So shift gears with me for a moment and let’s take a look at pairing with another type of client – the typically developing adult. In the book, 25 Essential Skills & Strategies for the Professional Behavior Analyst: Expert Tips for Maximizing Consulting Effectiveness, the authors discuss training adults to implement the new contingencies you’ve developed for the client. Pairing with an adult to establish instructional control will have to look a little different than what we’ve discussed. As the authors say: 

“The first thing you need to recognize is that getting adults to change their behavior is quite difficult. Adults are often resistant to doing things in a new way, and many don’t like to be told what to do.” (Bailey & Burch, p. 87).

Often overlooked when training professionals is the importance of pairing, and the interpersonal skills required to effectively pair with the others on your client’s team. The therapist is not the only person who will interact with a client. Remember your client’s parents? The ones that provide us with invaluable information and data when assessing and designing appropriate programs, the ones who you want following the strategies you suggest. Yeah them, they are an integral part of the client’s team, and you want them to like you! And the other professionals (e.g., speech and language pathologist, teacher, staff), they are just as important to the team, and your relationship with them is crucial. What about the CEO who will make the decision to give you that contract, or the staff that do not report to you but have to do what you say? They are all important clients that you need to build rapport with.

According to Bailey & Burch (1998), “professionals with good interpersonal skills know how to build good rapport” (p. 94). From the very beginning of a relationship with a client, whether it is an individual, family, agency, or business, a behaviour analyst should establish good rapport. The authors describe the skills required to build rapport with clients. Here’s a summary of the skills related to interpersonal communication and building rapport that professionals need to for maximum effectiveness. Especially important is to begin any client relationship or first meeting using these skills.

  • Building trust, establish that you respect the client 
  • Being a good listener
  • Showing confidence in your approach
  • Displaying a caring attitude
  • Having a friendly demeanor
  • Maintain good eye contact
  • Read body language
  • Steer conversations back on track when needed
  • Use the person’s name in conversation
  • Smile!

If you consider the pairing guidelines mentioned earlier, you can use some of them with your “adult” client, albeit in a professional and slightly different way. For example, taking your business client out for lunch to their favourite restaurant (and of course, paying!). Sharing gains a child makes with his parents after every session, because which parent doesn’t want to hear all the good things their kid did! Consider providing verbal positive reinforcement to staff, and making it a daily affair. As Aubrey Daniels suggests, your ratio of reinforcement to punishment should be about 4:1. All of these, and the interpersonal skills will help build your rapport with the other person. 

So why is this important? If you can get your 11-year-old client with Oppositional Defiance Disorder to comply, accurately respond to task demands, engage in appropriate behaviours instead of challenging behaviours, you’ve done your job, right? Wrong! Congratulations on building rapport with your client, but your job is far from over. The other members of that client’s team, like his parents, teachers, and other professionals will need to be trained on using the strategies. Similarly, in a business environment, you will have to train employees, managers, supervisors. You can use great training strategies, but if you haven’t established good rapport with those individuals, it might not work out so well.

Recognizing this, the first step in training others is establishing a good rapport with them. Remember the basics, first, pair yourself with reinforcers so that they want to adhere to the new contingencies (not do the opposite!), and second, and equally important, learn the interpersonal skills to effectively build rapport.

Let us know your experiences with building rapport in the comments below, and don’t forget to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!


Bailey, J.S., & Burch, M.R. (2010). 25 essential skills & strategies for the professional behavior analyst: expert tips for maximizing consulting effectiveness. New York: Routledge. 

Berg, W. K., Pect, S., Wacker, D.P., Harding, J., McComas, J., Richman, D., & Brown, K. (2000). The effects of presession exposure to attention on the results of assessments of attention as a reinforcer. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 33, 463-477.

Daniels, A. C. (2000). Bringing out the best in people: how to apply the astonishing power of positive reinforcement. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Kelly, A. N., Axe, J.B., Allen, R. F., & Maguire, R. W. (2015). Effect of presession pairing on the challenging behavior and academic responding of children with autism. Behavioural Interventions, 30 (2), 135-156.

Sundberg, M. L. & Partington, J. W. (1998). Teaching language to children with autism or other developmental disabilities. Pleasant Hill, CA: Behavior Analysts, Inc.

Taylor, B. A., & Fisher, J. (2010). Three Important Things to Consider When Starting Intervention for a Child Diagnosed With Autism. Behavior Analysis in Practice3(2), 52–53.

Zainab Fazal, M.ADS, BCBA Zainab Fazal, M.ADS, BCBA, began her career in the developmental disabilities field in 2002, and has dedicated her clinical work and research in the area of Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA). She has worked for many years in assessing and developing comprehensive programs plans for children, youth, and adults with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), learning disabilities, other developmental disabilities, behavioural challenges and mental health issues. Her recent work includes training front-line staff and teachers to use ABA in therapeutic and school settings, and has successfully trained individuals for the Registered Behaviour Technician credential with the Behaviour Analyst Certification Board. She is also an adjunct professor at Seneca College teaching ABA courses in the Behavioural Sciences program. Zainab is the founder and director of Phoenix Behaviour Services, a private practice in Toronto, Canada. You can follow her on twitter @Phoenix_ABA and reach her at [email protected].

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2 Comments on "How To Get Your Client To Listen To You"

  1. So I am not sure I like this sequence and here is why. My experience is that, in the very beginning you are laying the groundwork for all future interactions. If those early interactions are totally positive, with no expectation for any sort of behavior from the client, your low expectations are a problem. You SHOULD begin with some thoughts about what kinds of approximations you will reinforce. These may be (and likely should be) as simple as a smile, a handshake, a nod in the right direction. The behavior you are looking to shape are going to be incremental, but non-contingent reinforcement is a path to a problematic professional relationship. Among other reasons, but probably the most important, is you will not learn what the client prefers. Early responsiveness to reinforces will let you know what works in the future!

  2. I initially connect with autistic children by keeping language right down and simple (or sometimes no language at all), resuced demands, and I pause and wait before playing/engaging in the way a child understands. So if they like to spin wheels and I spin wheels too that always gets their interest and a connection has been made.

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