Dealing with difficult people: ten-point guide
Most legal professionals, at some time or another, have to deal with difficult people – or with otherwise perfectly pleasant and rational people who for some unknown reason become highly emotional and completely irrational in the presence of a legal adviser.
What strategies does the English language provide for dealing with such situations? This chapter contains a ten-point guide outlining the types of approach that may assist in taming an enraged client, colleague or partner – and the language that can be used to support these approaches.
Your client is upset. Therefore, you have to indicate that you understand their concerns. If you fail to do so, the conversation will not progress. In particular, you should show you are actively listening to what they are saying. To a great extent, this can be achieved by body language –lean forward slightly, face the client, maintain eye contact, nod occasionally, and use expressions which simply show you are listening: mm hmm, yes, I see, OK, go on, right, etc.
In addition, it is helpful to summarise and reflect what the client is saying. This reinforces the feeling that you are interested in their concerns. Certain phrases can be used in this respect:
• Tell me more about that.
• And naturally you felt annoyed when they said they weren’t going to pay you.
• Let’s see if I’ve got this right. To summarise, you said that you sent a reminder letter on 16 July and when you got no response you made a personal visit to Mr Brown’s office on 5 August.
• Do you mind if we just go over this again? I’d like to make sure I’ve got it right.
17.2 AVOID DEFENSIVENESS
When attacked, the natural reaction is to defend ourselves. However, this is exactly the wrong way to deal with an angry client.
Never say things like, Well, it’s not my fault, or I didn’t get the message, or Our IT systems went down. Even if these things are true, raising them will only make the situation more difficult, as the client will think that you are trying to avoid responsibility for the problem that has arisen.
At the same time, it is obviously unwise, if it is not precisely clear where the fault lay, to use language which amounts to an admission of liability, such as I’m sorry we messed things up for you.
The best approach is to find a way of apologising without necessarily admitting fault. For example:
I’m really sorry that you feel we let you down …
Once you have established these parameters – that you’re sorry that the client is upset, on the one hand; but that you don’t admit any liability for the actual problem, on the other hand – then you can go ahead and pacify the client further. Note it may be wise, however, to keep things reasonably vague rather than making specific promises that you may not be able to keep:
… and of course we’ll do whatever we can to sort matters out for you.
17.3 SEEK MORE INFORMATION
It is important to be careful here. When someone is angry, a tactless question can sometimes send them over the edge. On the other hand, unless you get the information you need, you will not be able to make much progress with the problem they have.
One useful tip here is to try to use tentative or conditional language. For example: