How to Set Goals that Help Clients Achieve Progress in Therapy

April 23, 2024
By Team Simply.Coach
achieve progress in therapy

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If you’ve newly established your career as a therapist, you know there are a few skills you can only hone on the job. One such skill is goal setting, or helping clients set the right goals.

Here’s the kicker: setting the right therapy goals isn’t always as straightforward as it seems. 

Of course, both you and your clients will understand the importance of goals, but what about setting goals that truly hit the mark? 

We’re about to explore how you can refine your goal-setting skills to ensure you’re guiding your clients toward meaningful progress in therapy. Let’s get into it! 

Understanding Therapy Goals

The purpose of therapy goals is to provide a clear direction and focus for your sessions. They help in breaking down the overwhelming task of overcoming challenges into manageable steps. 

It’s about turning, “I want to feel better,” into specific, achievable targets like, “I want to manage my anxiety during work presentations.”

Common categories of therapy goals

Effective therapy often revolves around establishing clear objectives that target various aspects of personal growth and mental health. Consider these common categories:

  • Emotional regulation: Learn to manage emotions effectively (identify triggers, develop coping skills).
  • Cognitive restructuring: Challenge unhelpful thinking patterns (identify distortions, develop cognitive flexibility).
  • Behavioral change: Modify problematic behaviors (identify unhealthy behaviors, set SMART goals for change).
  • Communication skills: Enhance communication for healthier relationships (active listening, assertive communication, setting boundaries).
  • Relationship improvement: Strengthen relationships or navigate conflict (communication patterns, conflict resolution, empathy building).
  • Personal growth: Foster self-discovery and development (increase self-esteem, self-awareness, life skills development).

Preparing to Set Therapy Goals

Now, let’s dive into the crux: As a therapist, how do you help clients set goals that aid in achieving progress or demonstrating tangible results in their journey?

Let’s break it down into four broad stages. Remember, these aren’t rigid rules; there’s always room for variations based on individual cases.

1. Reflecting on broad motives, hopes, and dreams

    You can begin by exploring your client’s overarching aspirations.

    What do they hope to achieve in therapy? What are their dreams for their future self?

    Encouraging clients to articulate their broader motives provides a foundation for more specific, targeted goals. It’s about connecting the dots between their desires and the steps needed to get there.

    2. Identifying key areas for improvement or growth

      Once the big picture is clear, zoom in on specific areas that need attention!

      This could range from:

      • Managing anxiety: This could involve learning relaxation techniques, identifying triggers, and developing coping mechanisms.
      • Improving relationships: This could focus on communication skills, setting boundaries, or resolving conflict.
      • Boosting self-esteem: Therapy can help clients identify negative self-talk, challenge unhelpful beliefs, and build confidence.
      • Overcoming trauma: Therapy can provide a safe space to process past experiences and develop healthy coping mechanisms.
      • Improving work-life balance: This could involve setting boundaries with work, managing stress, and developing time management skills.

      It’s important to prioritize these areas based on the client’s immediate needs and long-term objectives. 

      By identifying key areas for improvement, you can help clients set focused goals that are directly aligned with their aspirations.

      3. Understanding the collaborative role of the therapist 

        Now we come to our third stage: Collaboration!

        While clients come to therapy with their individual needs and aspirations, it’s YOU who plays a crucial role in transforming these desires into actionable goals.

        You’re not just a passive observer, but an active participant and guide. Your expertise can help clients articulate their goals more clearly, ensure that their goals are realistic, and provide the tools and strategies needed to achieve them. 

        Remember: Therapy is a partnership, and goal-setting is a collaborative effort!

        4. Recognizing the flexibility and evolving nature of therapy goals

          A famous saying about flexibility and how you should relate to it is that life throws curveballs, and therapy goals shouldn’t be as rigid as a bowling pin.

          Therapy goals are not set in stone. As your clients grow and evolve, so too should their goals.

          Be prepared to revisit and revise goals as needed. This flexibility allows for adjustments based on progress, setbacks, or changes in circumstances. It’s a dynamic process that reflects the ongoing nature of personal growth and development.

          Read: What Are the Top 3 Therapy Business Challenges?

          Creating Effective Therapy Goals to Achieve Progress

          Alright, so you’ve got a good grasp of why goals matter and the different areas they can target in therapy. 

          Now, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty: crafting goals that are laser-focused and propel your clients toward real progress.

          Here’s your cheat sheet for crafting goals that hit the bullseye every time:

          1. Setting SMART goals

            Think of SMART goals as your compass in therapy. They’re like tiny roadmaps that keep your client on track and motivated. Here’s the breakdown:

            1. Specific: Aim for concrete targets like “reduce anxiety during presentations by 50%.”
            2. Measurable: Define measurable criteria, like a decrease in panic attacks or improvement on a self-reported anxiety scale.
            3. Achievable: Keep it realistic. Setting goals that are too ambitious can lead to discouragement.
            4. Relevant: The goals should be relevant to your client’s current situation and values.
            5. Time-bound: Establish a timeframe for achieving each goal. This provides clear milestones for tracking progress.

            Using technology makes the process of SMART goal setting and tracking all the easier – using a platform like Simply.Coach can help keep therapy goals organized and easily accessible for both you and your clients.

            However, creating goals gets you only halfway through the process because you also need a strategy to measure progress. And for that, you need to set up clinical questionnaires.

            2. The role of Clinical Questionnaires (CQs) for progress measurement

            Clinical questionnaires (CQs) are standardized assessments that measure various aspects of mental health, like anxiety or depression.

            CQs act as your progress-measuring buddies. You can use them before and after working on specific goals to see if your strategies are paying off. They provide objective data to complement your client’s subjective experience of improvement.

            Remember: CQs are just one tool in your toolbox. They shouldn’t replace open communication and a collaborative approach to goal setting and progress tracking.

            Achieving Therapy Goals under the SMART Framework

            Now that you’ve got the SMART framework under your belt, how does one translate those principles into real-life action to achieve them? Here are some pointers that you can recommend to your clients to help them achieve their SMART goals: 

            Improving communication and interpersonal skills

            • Active listening: Encourage clients to commit to practicing active listening techniques in conversations with loved ones, focusing on empathy and understanding.
            • Assertiveness training: Help clients set a goal to assert their needs and boundaries in a respectful manner in at least two different situations each week.
            • Conflict resolution: Guide clients in working on resolving conflicts in a constructive way by practicing problem-solving techniques and maintaining emotional control.

            Read: An Introduction to Adaptive Communication in Coaching Relationships

            Developing and practicing new coping mechanisms

            • Stress management: Equip clients with stress reduction techniques, such as mindfulness meditation or deep breathing exercises, and encourage them to implement these techniques at least three times a week.
            • Emotion regulation: Support clients in setting a goal to identify and express emotions in a healthy way, using journaling or talking to a trusted friend as an outlet.
            • Healthy distraction: Collaborate with clients to incorporate activities that provide a positive distraction from stressors, such as hobbies or exercise, into their weekly routine.

            Addressing and processing past trauma

            • Exposure therapy: Guide clients through gradually and safely confronting memories or triggers related to past trauma, with your support.
            • Narrative therapy: Facilitate clients in rewriting the narrative of their trauma, focusing on resilience and personal growth.
            • Self-compassion: Help clients cultivate self-compassion by practicing self-kindness and understanding towards their experiences and emotions.

            Enhancing self-esteem and emotional well-being

            • Positive affirmations: Encourage clients to incorporate daily positive affirmations that focus on their strengths and accomplishments.
            • Self-discovery: Guide clients in engaging in activities or therapy exercises that help them explore and understand their values, interests, and goals.
            • Gratitude practice: Introduce clients to keeping a gratitude journal and suggest writing down three things they’re grateful for each day to foster a positive outlook.

            Making behavioral changes for a healthier lifestyle

            • Physical activity: Support clients in setting a goal to engage in regular physical activity, such as walking for 30 minutes, five times a week.
            • Nutrition: Help clients develop a plan to make healthier food choices, such as incorporating more fruits and vegetables into their diet.
            • Sleep hygiene: Guide clients in improving their sleep routine by setting a consistent bedtime and creating a relaxing pre-sleep ritual.


            Setting effective therapy goals is a journey that requires precision, adaptability, and collaboration. 

            Remember, the essence of successful therapy lies in tailoring goals to each individual’s unique needs and circumstances. It’s not just about setting goals, but setting the right goals that resonate with your client’s personal journey.

            Above all, encourage your clients to speak up and engage in the goal-setting process. It’s their journey, after all, and while your input is invaluable, the setting of goals is up to them.

            As tools like Simply.Coach aim to support therapists in streamlining their practice, consider how its features could enhance your client engagements and therapy goal successes.
            To explore the platform’s goal setting functionalities, you can schedule a demo or even better, sign up for a free trial today.

            About Simply.Coach

            Simply.Coach is an enterprise-grade coaching software designed to be used by individual coaches and coaching businesses. Trusted by ICF-accredited and EMCC-credentialed coaches worldwide, Simply.Coach is on a mission to elevate the experience and process of coaching with technology-led tools and solutions.  

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