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How to pace and close a therapy session

Reviewed by Monika Cope-Ward, LCSW

A therapist checks her watch

A typical therapy session runs about 45 to 55 minutes, which isn’t always enough time to cover everything your client has on their mind that day. Establishing structure in your sessions while providing flexibility for exploration is a balancing act.

Time is a valuable resource in therapy. These tips can help you improve your pacing skills and wind down sessions successfully.

Start off on the right foot

Review the previous session’s notes to refresh yourself on where you left off and where you might begin this time. The client may want to start the session in a new place that doesn’t have anything to do with the prior session, but it’s helpful to have a sense of how to facilitate the conversation.

Ask the client what they’d like to accomplish in their session. This helps convey that you’re open to hearing from them about how the conversation should go. It also helps set the tone for the rest of the session and gives you an idea of what areas need to be covered.

Allow the client to guide the pace of the session. The cadence the client sets will depend on the issues they’re dealing with, how long they’ve been working with you, and their coping strategies. As you build your therapeutic alliance, the client may become more comfortable expressing their emotions to you, which will cut down on how long it takes them to open up at each session.

Ask the client to describe events as if they’re experiencing them now. This will help them focus on relevant details and prevent them from feeling rushed to tell the story from their own perspective.

Pause before you intervene. As the facilitator of the session, you also need to understand how to pace yourself. This helps you avoid getting ahead of the client. Practicing silence and thoughtful listening is one way to do this, and you could also restate or summarize what your client has said.

Adjust the pace as needed

Pay close attention to the client’s nonverbal cues (such as body language) and verbal responses. A client who’s distracted, hesitant, confused, resistant, or stuck contemplating a thought or feeling may need a slower-paced session. On the other hand, if they’re enthusiastic and engaged in the conversation, they may be ready to move forward.

If a client tries to go too fast, gently redirect the conversation to the original pace. Toavoid fully addressing painful topics and emotions, some clients may speak quickly and leave out details. Acknowledge their eagerness to move along while emphasizing that you want to fully understand them. Let them know that it’s important to fully explore and process each feeling by slowing down the pace.

Work within the client’s window of tolerance. The “window of tolerance,” a concept coined by Dan Siegel, MD, in his book “The Developing Mind,” refers to the range of emotional states a client is able to experience without becoming overwhelmed or shutting down.1 Over time, the client may be able to increase their window and explore more challenging topics comfortably.

Build in enough time for de-escalation. If the client becomes very emotional or physically agitated, give them time and space to work through what they’re feeling. This will allow them to understand what’s happening and improve their ability to think clearly while experiencing difficult emotions.

Save topics that require further exploration for homework assignments. If you find that your client needs longer to work on a particular issue or topic, offer them an assignment or activity to do at home. That way they can process the material on their own time and come back to it during their next session.

Close on a positive note

Let the client know when they have 5 to 10 minutes left. A verbal warning can help them prepare for the end of the session and allow time to cover any loose ends or unanswered questions.

Summarize important points and progress from the session. You can ask the client to note the main points from the session or do it yourself. This is also a good moment to remind them of any homework assignments they should complete to keep working toward their goals.

Encourage clients to share any lingering thoughts or concerns they may have before leaving. This is especially important as you begin to build your therapeutic relationship, because clients may need extra encouragement to open up about certain topics at first.

Validate “doorknob” confessions and assess accordingly. A client may share a difficult or emotionally charged experience right as a therapy session is about to end. It’s important to listen to and validate their experience, even though there’s limited time to explore it. If this new information suggests the client may be in immediate danger, such as being abused or contemplating suicide, it must be addressed right away.

End with positive recognition or reinforcement. As the client leaves, give them specific and positive feedback about what they did well during the session, such as showing vulnerability or demonstrating insight. You might also wrap up by telling them that you look forward to hearing about their homework assignment at the next session.

Pacing takes practice

It’s easy to pace and close on time with some clients, while others may try to push the boundaries of their sessions. Every client is different, so each one requires an individualized approach.

Pacing a therapy session can be challenging, but with the right combination of intentionality and responsiveness, it can become second nature. With practice, you’ll be able to build trust with your clients and create an atmosphere that fosters therapeutic progress.

About the author

The editorial team at therapist.com works with the world’s leading clinical experts to bring you accessible, insightful information about mental health topics and trends.

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