a man pulling at his shirt collar to represent how to deal with stress in the workplace

  How many times have you thought that your job would be much easier if you didn’t have to deal with difficult or emotional clients? The reality of a client-facing role in the professions is that difficult or emotional clients come as par for the course. I was running a training course on LinkedIn last week where one of the lawyers on the course specialised in helping her clients when they are grieving for the death of a loved one. Perhaps I should have asked her for top tips on how to cope! Your ability to excel within the professions as a fee earner will be severely hampered if you struggle to cope with the more challenging clients. Even if you deliver a relatively safe service, such as helping with year-end accounts, there will be times when the emotions will make it difficult to deliver the service the client needs.

Do we struggle with being ‘too British’ when it comes to dealing with emotions at work?

I know that the British culture is where you are expected to show a ‘stiff upper lip’ and leave your feelings and emotions at the door when you come into work. Perhaps this is why so many of us shy away from conversations with difficult or emotional clients? There is a good chance that many of us don’t like dealing with this type of client because they are unpredictable. This unpredictability can come from the suddenness with which their behaviour changes or how they react when they are angry or upset. Think of a time when your emotions got out of control. Did you act in a rational way at the time? I’m guessing not!

Remember that often it is not personal or anything to do with you

As I am writing this article I am smiling to myself. I’ve woken up this morning with my old friend, the right ear infection, back again. This makes me a fairly grumpy person. I’ve learnt that when this happens I should remove myself from people and plod on with what I need to do today. However, if I end up talking to someone I am going to need to find my happy face and normal warm, friendly self. (That is going to take some doing!) Like me today, your client outburst may be nothing to do with you. They may be struggling with something in their personal life or having a bad day. When you are having to cope with something which is impacting your ability to perform, this can change your normal behaviour. For me I tend to get irritable, grumpy and unwilling to suffer fools gladly. It can also stop people from wanting to find closure or just acting like a reasonable human being.

Learn to control your own emotions

When you are faced with a difficult or emotional client, or even an angry client, you need to remember that the only emotions you can actually control are yours. Yes, you can influence their emotions, but at the end of the day, you are only truly in control of your own. So, the question is: ‘How do you actually control your own emotions, when all around you are losing theirs?”

  • Focus on your breathing and aim to slow your breathing down so you are maintaining a slow and steady rhythm. This will help you naturally reduce your stress levels.
  • Sit or stand upright and make sure your posture is confident. It doesn’t matter whether you are taking a difficult phone call or meeting with someone in person, having a confident and upright posture will help you to manage whatever is being chucked at you.
  • Keep your speech calm and neutral. I know that this one has always worked for me when my daughter has thrown a tantrum at me. Very often by not letting your speech show emotion, you will bring your client back down into a rational state. I.e. don’t hurl more petrol onto the fire of emotions!

Acknowledge the emotions you are hearing

It can be very tempting to do the teenager thing and metaphorically say ‘Whatever’ when you are coming under a hail of emotional and aggressive language. This is the last thing you should do, even though it is very natural to try and avoid tackling what is coming at you. Once again, this is the time to realise that the only person you can control is you. You can’t control your client and what they are thinking. What you can do, and the right thing to do is to name and acknowledge what your client is going through. For example:

  • I can hear some frustration, or am I misinterpreting this?
  • I am sorry to hear this.
  • I understand how annoying this must be for you.

Very often, once you have acknowledged the emotion you are hearing will your client start to become more rational and reasonable.

Help them to the other side of the red mist state

I am sure that we have all been there, where suddenly the ‘red mist’ descends and you are no longer in control of your actions, emotions, temper or the words coming out of your mouth. It can be a very frightening situation for both people, i.e. the person experiencing the outburst of emotion and the person witnessing it. When you have a client in this state, do not try and be logical with them until they have calmed down. Some of these techniques may help:

  • Suggesting that you both take a 10-minute breather to calm the emotions down.
  • Staying calm and centred yourself.
  • Not judging them for what they are saying in the heat of the moment.
  • Don’t tell them to ‘calm down’ – it often does the opposite!
  • Emphasise with them.

Build rapport and empathy

Empathy and rapport are a great way of helping a difficult client conversation become easier. For example:

  • identifying areas where you are both in agreement,
  • apologising for how they are feeling,
  • showing that you truly understand the client’s point of view, or
  • demonstrating that the client has been understood.

In summary

Dealing with difficult or emotional clients and tough client situations is part of being a professional advisor. The key to turning these encounters into a positive scenario is all about remaining calm and centred yourself, accepting their emotions for what they are, and taking the time to build rapport and empathise with them.

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