On the use of magic with difficult clients

by Bernadette Healy


Provide a person with a genuine opportunity to tell their story without judgement or criticism and many of your ‘difficult client’ issues will magically disappear!

Most people want the chance to tell their story. When in the midst of a challenging time – which will be the case for most people in the midst of a legal dispute- the need to tell one’s story may feel quite urgent. Under duress, however, some people react with aggressiveness or intense frustration or even withdrawal and this behaviour is likely to impede the very kind of interaction that will enable them to tell their story – thereby denying themselves (and you!) the related stress-reduction benefits. In addition to turning you off – either by distancing you, or frightening you or annoying you by their seeming inability to listen – they are likely to be participating in a self-fulfilling prophecy kind of cycle which triggers long-held unhelpful core beliefs. Examples of such beliefs include: that they are not worth being listened to; that they cannot cope with frustration; or that all people in authority will hurt them. Core beliefs are developed early in life and are typically reinforced in complicated patterns of intensely felt uncomfortable feelings, triggered reactions, avoidance behaviours and further cementing of the core beliefs.

It is also quite likely that your clients have experienced many people before you who actually did not listen to them often enough (or even at all!) and may therefore enter new (and stressful ) situations with the expectation that this will continue. The type of behaviours which lead to someone being described as a ‘difficult client’ may have developed over a lifetime. You of course cannot impact this history but you can become an exception to their previous experience – and that is the kind of moment that can lead to personal change.

Do not discount the value of the interaction – a situation can be more or less traumatic regardless of the actual outcome, purely due to the nature of the interpersonal interactions along the way. That is, even in the non-winnable situation (sigh), you can make a long-lasting and positive impact which will actually reduce the recovery time for the client (and probably yourself also!).

Prepare for the conversation including reminding yourself that you may be about to go into a potentially difficult situation but also allowing for the possibility that you may not. Don’t take your lead from a secondary source. That is, pay the individual the respect of meeting them freshly rather than forming a judgement based on what someone else has told you.

Be aware of the kinds of situations that may trigger a reaction in you regardless of the individual. That is, reflect on times of difficulty in your own life, and consider the possible work cases that could pull you in to a reaction that is not about the client, but actually about your own stuff.

Put aside your agenda, at least temporarily, take a deep breath, sit in an open manner and invite them to tell you how they are going and what they would particularly like you to know. Remember you are not responsible for their problems. You are responsible however for listening effectively and for promoting a good working relationship. Try and ensure their privacy for conversation. If they are so aggressive that you are nervous of your physical safety, ensure that you remain in an area where you have access to others but try and move to one side of the area to provide a sense of concern for their right to confidentiality.

Treat each client equally (and positively!) regardless of their status. You will be amazed at how soon people will modify their behaviour when they are treated as if they truly matter. And a bit of equalizing behaviour never goes astray for those apt to think that they are above the unruly hoard either!

Be prepared to admit when you don’t know something. Acknowledge their frustration / anger / distress. This does not equate to agreeing with them. Also this does not mean that you have to put up with ongoing dis-respectful behaviour. Inform the person of your expectations and the consequences. For example wait for them to calm down and then tell them what will happen if they become abusive again – for example – that you will leave the room / the meeting will have to be postponed / you will have less time to attend to the issues of the case / have to hold all conversation in public area etc.

Don’t promise anything that you cannot deliver and do not promise something which another person is responsible for delivering, unless you have ensured that that is the case. Aim to be the one whose behaviour de-bunks their negative expectations.

Remember that ‘difficult people’ – for often tragic reasons – may try and make the difficulty about you. You need to ‘hold the line’ – that is, stay calm, allow the ‘white noise’ comments to float past and wait. (If feeling vulnerable, remind yourself internally of your strengths, your experience, your right to be there in that professional capacity.) Eventually the emotional reactivity will subside and a comment will be made to which you can honestly and professionally respond. This may take some practice and patience but it will be worth the effort.