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When Push Comes to Shove

WEB DESIGN

Published: 

Nobody ever intends to take on a difficult client. Yet almost everybody has had the experience of a client relationship turning sour. When a seemingly professional client’s need begin to impinge on your emotional life, it can take the joy out of work, leaving you feeling frustrated, anxious, prickly and overwhelmed.

AUTHOR

Renae Turner

Co-founder @ Pixel Together


Wednesday 25th August 2021

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'You can start by understand your own needs, and being willing to express them'

“When faced with a difficult client, it is instinctive to feel threatened,” says counsellor Caroline Prince. “Tackling a relationship of any type involves showing some of who we are, taking risks, asking for our needs to be met, and taking some responsibility for setting boundaries and shaping the relationship. The vulnerability that comes alongside that can be scary.”

The good news is that those overwhelmed feelings can be cues that alert us not just to the need for change in a client relationship, but to the kind of change that’s required. To Prince, ‘difficult’ client behaviour is almost always the result of mismatched desires, communications styles, past experiences, and emotional needs, which a client might not even be aware of.

“Behind any difficult behaviour is a struggling human,” she says. “We don't know what is happening in another's world—but you can start by understand your own needs, and being willing to express them.”

Image Credit: Yerlin Matu

Check in with your reaction

When dealing with a difficult client, the first thing to do is check in with your own reaction. While some clients are merely frustrating, Prince says, others push us towards our reactive survival response of fight, flight, freeze, and fawn.

“When faced with a difficult client, it is instinctive to feel threatened,” she says. “While you are in survival response, you will be less likely to see the whole picture and make choices about how to proceed.”

The physical sensations that accompany survival responses—a gnawing feeling in the stomach, tense shoulders, fast breath—can cue us in to where these feelings are coming from. A client who reminds you of a former boss might be triggering a stress response related to past anxiety, or a tone of voice might evoke a condescending teacher, and the feeling of being a humiliated child.

Acknowledging your reaction, and taking a few deep breaths, can help you calm your body’s stress response, leaving you better equipped to deal with conflict in the moment. It’s also important to acknowledge any baggage you may have brought into a conversation, and be accountable for mistakes or oversights that might be prompting their ire.

'Giving validation and recognition of their experience can then help you align with them so that you are no longer on opposing teams'

“We often associate difficult behaviour with aggression and conflict, but passive, withdrawn behaviours can also be extremely difficult,” says Prince. “They halt work flow, undermine authenticity in a team, and a client may refuse to work on resolution.”


Dealing with adversarial behaviour is taxing, but Prince suggests extending the benefit of the doubt, and examining a client’s conduct as an attempt to communicate

unmet needs.


“A general principle I work by is that while the other person is in survival response they will not be open to hearing your need,” says Prince. “They are busy asserting their own!


Giving validation and recognition of their experience can then help you align with them so that you are no longer on opposing teams—making it easier to say, ‘I recognise this is difficult for you and you are doing your best; what I need is to have you work with me on a solution.’”

Identify unmet needs

Image Credit: Max van den Oetelaar

Keeping your boundaries strong

If a client is making you feel anxious, uncomfortable, hurt, or unheard, Prince adds, these are the cues that alert you to the need for stronger boundaries, especially if you believe that there is a chance of danger or damage to your career.

“Many people face big obstacles in expressing what is okay and not okay,” she says. “But you don’t have to do it alone. Knowing your options is important—it might be about getting information from WorkSafe or from your union.”

Calling in a colleague or manager for support is another good option, as is preparing some key phrases in advance. Asserting boundaries does not have to lead to conflict—sometimes both parties are relieved to have explicit relationship guidelines.

'Make sure that you give feedback about the things that have worked as well as those that haven’t.'

Keep the lines of communication open

Finally, check in with client relationships as they develop, to ensure that you are still on the same page, and make sure that you give feedback about the things that have worked as well as those that haven’t.

“We have to constantly shape and mould our relationships like clay,” says Prince. “Respectfully letting people know when needs were met, as well as when they were not, allows you to learn to build a healthy, respectful relationship.

“Be prepared to hear the emotion and story behind another's boundary,” she adds. “This involves empathy and compromise. Building healthy relationships requires not only the giving of feedback and making of boundaries, but the willingness to be on the receiving end as well.”

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AUTHOR

Published: 

Wednesday 25th August 2021

Co-founder @ Pixel Together

Renae Turner

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