Why I Don’t Use the Word ‘Client’

Author: Beth Olson

We recently lead a workshop for advocates entitled: “Why I Don’t Use the Word ‘Client’”. We started out the presentation doing a role play of a typical family entering an agency when they need help.

The participants were unaware of our role play. They thought we were doing a simple intake with them for the workshop session.

We asked them to fill out a sheet of paper with some personal information and some questions that were all negative or problem focused regarding them as advocates, e.g., what is the most difficult part of being an advocate, what makes it hard to help clients, etc.

We then asked them to set goals for the work shop. When they started to share goals we told one of them that we would be unable to address that goal. We promptly gave her a phone number of someone else that could. She looked embarrassed and upset (she said later that she was holding back tears because she already felt insecure stating her goals).

The whole exercise lasted 5 minutes.

Everyone in the room described feeling shutdown, disrespected, and said they did not trust us. We weren’t mean. We said please and thank you. Still, there were several people who later described that they wanted to get up and leave (one person actually did exit the session). Upon further discussion, everyone agreed that the things we did were common when a family first presents. Asking people to fill out paperwork before even talking with someone, completing paperwork that is focused only on problems or needs, telling people their goals are not the “right” goals and that they need to call somewhere else are all very standard ways that agencies interact with families.

Do we as child advocacy centers want to be another place where families feel shutdown?

So what’s in a word?

What’s the big deal using the word ‘client’?

Who are clients?

Clients have problems and are people you help, not people in a struggle together

Clients have case numbers and often have diagnoses

Clients receive services – services are a transaction that have an end date

Clients have to prove they are worthy by being compliant, clients are under scrutiny and accountable

Clients are not ‘us’

Who are families?

People with something to offer

People with strengths and difficulties

People who love each other and are protective of each other

People who have worries about day to day things: dinner, daycare, schoolwork

People who have interests, hobbies, rituals and traditions

People who need support in their lives

People we can relate to

The language we use is important because it defines and directs our work. How can this subtle shift in language change your work, your interactions and your priorities?  How does this shift in language affect how you feel toward those you are working with?

These are some of the hard questions we must always ask ourselves as advocates.

We must never stop doing what is best for children and families.