+61-409-869-664 jan@brainpotential.net
The Accidental Therapist

Have you ever found yourself being an accidental therapist?  When your client, colleague, friend or even a random stranger who is in a heightened emotional state starts sharing their personal problems, sounding off in anger or frustration, upset or distressed, tense, anxious, or just desperate for a listening ear.

Some professionals such as hairdressers, beauty therapists, travel agents, and teachers/trainers can commonly find themselves becoming accidental therapists when they least expect it.

Most of us want to help others who are in need but the question is… how do you deal with the situation in a way that you can actually help without making things worse?


First listen with understanding

For many people in this situation, they may just need to feel heard.  It’s important that you listen with the intent to understand rather than with the intent to reply.  Most people tend to formulate a response when there’s no need for one.  True listening skills are when you keep your responses to a minimum using acknowledgements such as “ah ha”, “hmm”, or “I see” and really listen to what they are saying.

Good listening is a skill that may not come naturally but with practice, you can absolutely develop it and become a great listener.


Control your emotional State

It’s important that you take charge of your own emotional state so you don’t get caught up in their story – it belongs to them and not to you!

If you are triggered by what you hear, breathe in your emotions, calm your mind and if that is too difficult then it’s OK to excuse yourself from them, ensuring they are in a safe place and say “I’ll just be a moment” and retreating to somewhere you can take some deep breaths and regain control of your emotional state.

Think of your emotions like a traffic light:

RED – you’ll find it difficult to engage rationally

AMBER – your emotions are becoming heightened and headed towards red

GREEN – you can think clearly and be calm

You want to be operating in the green zone when speaking with someone else in a negative or heightened emotional state and if you find yourself creeping into the amber zone then you need to take action to change that.

The Accidental Therapist Traffic Light for emotional states

Manage emotions and maintain boundaries

You can help them to de-escalate their emotions by:

  • Staying calm yourself
  • Slowing your voice down
  • Lowering your tone
  • Being patient and letting them speak
  • Empathising
  • Keeping the conversation on course
  • Asking questions aimed at problem solving

During the conversation, it’s vital for your own wellbeing that you maintain boundaries.  Only take on the responsibilities covered or expected in your role and work within your limits of competence – you aren’t a trained therapist so don’t behave like one!  If the conversation gets too heavy for you it’s OK to say that it’s not your area of expertise.


    Respond appropriately

    You should never feel that you must solve the issues of others but rather simply be there to support them.

    It would be unreasonable for them to expect you to solve their problems, give advice, or relate their issues to match your own.  They are simply sharing with you as they trust you.

    There is potential risk to you that you may take on their problems or you may offer a suggestion that comes back to bite you down the track.  Be sure to protect yourself when responding to someone experiencing a heightened emotional state.


    Change the course of the conversation

    The person with the most flexibility of behaviour will have the most control over a situation.  That means when the other person is in a negative emotional state, you are the one  who will likely have the most control.

    Be tactful in showing a level of understanding with statements such as “I can’t imagine how that must be for you” or “I can’t begin to understand how you are feeling”.  You may also like to ask, “Have you ever spoken to a professional about these things?”.

    It’s important that you show empathy by acknowledging their feelings, validate what they are going through and at the same time being careful not to over-empathise with them.  Be mindful of the line between sympathy and empathy (see this article [LINK] for more about the difference and how to show empathy).


    Guide them to further support

    Asking simple questions about what might be best for them right now can be a great way to guide them to the appropriate support.  If you have a list of appropriate options that you could refer them to, it can be much easier to do so. 

    Think of organisations such as Lifeline, Beyond Blue, Suicide Call Back, Black Dog, DV Connect, 000, psychologist, counsellor, GP, Government organisations – knowing what each of these organisations can help with may empower you to direct your client/friend to further support.


    Take care of your self

    Listening to other people’s problems can take its toll on you, especially if it is a regular occurrence.  That’s why it’s essential that you are proactive with your self-care routines.  Ensuring you get quality sleep, eat nutritious food, exercise, and practice relaxation will help you build and maintain your resilience and set up your own supports in case you need to debrief after being the accidental therapist!



    No matter who you are, you may at some point find yourself playing the role of accidental therapist, so it pays to develop those listening and empathy skills and know how to manage the conversation.  The C.L.E.A.R model summarises the approach well:


    C – Clarify – Establish and understanding of what your client needs, what you can offer and what your role is.

    L – Listen – Use your active listening skills to understand the client’s/friend’s issue, without holding judgement

    E – Empathise – Acknowledge and validate their feelings without over-empathising

    A – Act – Ask some open questions about what support they might like to tap into.  Suggest resources

    R – Review – Follow up by checking in – if appropriate to do so


    Remember the  CLEAR model next time you find yourself as the accidental therapist and you’ll be glad you did.


    Kind regards,

    Jan Sky