How to deal with angry clients

When dealing with clients, it's not unusual to have to deal with their negative emotions. Especially if their case relates to something deeply personal, such as divorce or custody. Julian Hall, director of Calm People, shares how you can deal with your clients' anger through empathy.
A woman with dark hair has a tense conversation with another woman.
Photograph: Fizkes

One of the most common questions I get asked is: "how can I calm an angry client?" – the implication being that there must be some magic psychological trick that will have an instantaneous effect.

While there certainly are tips and strategies for dealing with angry clients, unfortunately for those looking for a quick fix, they go hand in hand with personal development work and self understanding.

Before we can effectively help others who are in a heightened emotional state, we need to be aware of what our own emotional challenges are.

So, for the purpose of this article, I’ll assume that you are reasonably well balanced – and that you have read the articles I have written about lawyers and emotional resilience:

Why is my client angry?

The first thing to do when dealing with an angry client is to consider what is likely to be making them angry.

And you need to bear in mind that the presenting issue (anger) and what they are angry about, is not always the real issue.

1. Fear

Fear is at the root of any stressful situation, and divorce is one of the most stressful situations anyone will experience.

Even the most amicable of splits can still be wrought with fear around such issues as feeling in control, breakdown of trust and what other people, such as the children, may think.

2. Hurt

Hurt is a feeling that is not often articulated, especially by the unreconstructed male.

To admit that we are hurt is to admit to our vulnerability.

Since our clients generally approach family solicitors for help when they are getting into, or are already in, a fight, vulnerability is the last thing they want to admit to.

But whether people admit to it or not, feeling hurt is extremely common. If they are unable to articulate that hurt and start a process of understanding it, they are likely to pour that energy into anger instead.

Since their ex-partner won’t speak to them, the next best person to let off steam at is…, oh yes, …their lawyer.

3. Acting out self-esteem issues

This is more common than you might think.

If the relationship that is breaking down was one where either or both of the partners relied upon the other to support their fragile self-esteem, then the breakdown the of the relationship has another level of tragedy associated with it.

Again, in the absence of someone else to meet their need to be respected, valued and appreciated, they may turn to their lawyer.

Phrases such as "I pay your wages" (translation: "Respect me!") or "You wouldn’t have a job if it wasn’t for the likes of me" (translation: "Value me!") may come to the fore.

Building on the self-esteem aspect further, a vital piece of this complex jigsaw is the negative beliefs we hold about ourselves but which we desperately try to avoid admitting to or dealing with.

Those of us who have held the "I’m a failure" script at bay will be familiar with the feelings associated with the ‘failure’ of a marriage.

Not only do they have the legal aspects to deal with, but they are also confronted with their own sense of self in all it’s painful glory.

Little wonder if they can be a little spiky and inclined to conflict with their favourite adviser.

4. Acting out the conflict

Anger is often accompanied by a surge of feeling powerless. Acting out our anger is one of the ways people seek to get their power back.

How many times have you been confronted with an angry client who wants you to assert completely unreasonable terms and demands upon their partner simply because this is their way of playing out the conflict?

Sometimes there is no point in the conflict other than the conflict itself, yet that is what they want to do.

For some, it is how they draw the power and energy to carry on.

How does this help me deal with an angry client?

I am hoping that you are able to recognise some of these behaviours and challenges not only in your clients, but also in yourselves.

One of the keys to being able to deal with behaviour of this type is being able to understand it and empathise with it.

Abraham Lincoln’s wife used to get quite exasperated with her husband and his ability to empathise with the other side of the civil war conflict.

His reply to her was: "They are just what we would be under similar circumstances".

In other words, we are all human, we all have human challenges and failings, and the more we empathise, the better.

In addition to being able to empathise and understand what is making a client angry, it helps to be aware of our own issues.

If we are aware of our the challenges of our emotional make up, it makes it easier not to take it personally when an angry client attacks us verbally.

At this point it is vital to point out that empathy does not mean letting people get away with unacceptable behaviour. It is possible to empathise with someone’s situation and hold them to account.

In fact, I would suggest that it is essential to empathise with someone when we hold them to account; that way we can keep a perspective on why we hold them to account and stop it becoming a conflict in its own right.

I’m empathising… what next?

By empathising with our clients, whatever our response to the onslaught we are on the receiving end of, we will remain professional and appropriate.

The opposite approach has the potential to dehumanise our angry client, metaphorically taking up arms against them in an attempt to defend our position and making matters much worse.

Tips for dealing with angry clients

1. Listen

One of the greatest compliments we can pay someone is to simply listen.

This means stopping what we are doing, focusing on them and listening with the sole purpose of listening.

Stephen R. Covey says: "Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply". This means they are not really listening.

In the times when I have disciplined myself in tense situations to stop and really listen I have, more often than not, picked up additional vital information that I would have missed if I had simply listened in order to get my point across.

2. Listen some more

Often people want to feel they have been heard.

Listening, reflecting back, and empathising while asking open questions such as "what else is going on right now?" can help a client empty themselves of all the anger and poisonous feelings they have at that moment.

If that point is reached, there are real opportunities to help them.

3. Reflect

Reflecting does not have to take hours – just a pause to reflect on what you have heard before responding can help.

It helps us process our thoughts and respond appropriately. It also demonstrates the care we are taking to help the client.

Sometimes the speed of thought and response that we may be valued for can be a disadvantage to a distressed or angry client.

4. Be solutions focused

What does your client really want to achieve? Do they simply wish to perpetuate a painful conflict and increase their bills?

Or do they want a resolution and be able to move on knowing they have been heard?

As you are no doubt aware, the solution the client is asking for in their moment of distress is not always really what they want.

5. Be aware of your personal and professional boundaries

You will attract the odd client who is a bully, plain and simple. They will have got themselves where they are by bullying and will see no good reason to give up now.

Whether you wish to put up with their abuse and take the fees is up to you.

My personal advice is that an emotionally resilient lawyer knows that their resilience and emotional wellbeing is essential to all of their clients, and that by putting up with the abuse of one toxic client could be a long term way of letting down a lot of other people that deserve your help.

Sometimes letting a client go is the best thing we can do. 

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