Difficult clients – how to reel them in

I’m sure you’ve all had that client who makes your stomach churn when you see their number pop up on your phone – that one who can be gruff or even rude; isn’t completely transparent with you; wants to run their own case; constantly complains; can be erratic; or simply doesn’t listen to anything you say.  Unruly clients can be difficult at the best of times, but especially so during a mediation.

Before attempting to mediate, it’s important to try and work out why your client is being difficult in the first place.  This will help you to understand why they act the way they do and develop a strategy to preempt and, hopefully, rein in that behaviour.  

Once you have a better idea of what is driving the difficult behaviour, you can then tailor your approach at the mediation to ensure a smoother experience for all parties.

Six reasons a client may be difficult and how to handle them

These are some of the more common reasons why a client may be difficult and some tips on how to handle them.

They don’t have trust or faith in the legal process

These clients can be frustrating as they will often do the exact opposite of what you’ve asked them to do. They are wary of your advice and can be unpredictable. These are often the clients who can be rude or disrespectful.

With these types of clients, it is particularly important to document all of your conversations and the instructions provided, including asking the client to acknowledge what has been agreed. You need to ensure that you are on the same page before you attend the mediation.  Encourage them to ask questions and raise any concerns they have and always make sure they are aware of the risks and all potential outcomes.  During the mediation, take the time to be clear and specific about what is happening and what is required of them.  Take breaks if necessary to ensure they understand and document all instructions provided.

They are micro-managers by nature and have trouble relinquishing control

This can make it really difficult for you to do your job, as these clients are likely to be doing their own research and coming up with their own opinions on the evidence, the law and how the case should be run.  They will expect you to do things their way.

To try and rein this behaviour in during the preparation stage of the case, explain clearly what information and documents you do or don’t need.  If they deliver huge piles of unnecessary documents and insist you read them, make sure they understand that this will take more of your time and they will be billed accordingly.  

Be specific and learn to politely interrupt rambling discussions or steer a conversation back to the relevant issue.  Importantly, set appropriate boundaries and do not let the client overstep these.  If these boundaries continue to be ignored, remind them often, even if it feels uncomfortable to do so.  Try and find a balance between being firm and friendly so that you remain in control. 

They are extremely passionate about their case and expect everyone else to be as emotionally invested

These clients are intense to deal with and will try to win everyone over with their story and evidence. They can become angry and righteous if things don’t go their way or they don’t feel that you’re on their side.

These clients are best handled by remaining neutral and using empathetic language so that they feel heard.  During the mediation, always stick to the relevant facts and evidence rather than engaging on an emotional level. Redirect conversations that are going off course and avoid giving your personal opinion or perspective.  

They may feel nervous or guilty about their involvement in the claim 

If your client feels responsible for a claim or guilty about a situation, they may behave in a way they think will protect them.

This can cause them to leave out important facts, embellish other information or perhaps not be entirely truthful.  This can clearly come back to bite them during a mediation.

Often when people are being dishonest, their behaviour stems from a lack of understanding of the legal process and fear of what will happen if the truth comes out. If you suspect your client is withholding information or twisting the truth, make sure that you put them at ease and explain clearly how the system works, the potential outcomes and risks, and what they can do to best help you do your job.  Ensure they understand the benefits of telling the truth and the consequences of withholding information.

They may be struggling with mental health issues 

These issues may or may not be related to the claim, but can cause your client to behave erratically. These clients can give inconsistent information, change their mind often, or forget important details. I’ve recently posted two blogs relevant to these issues – “Understanding the role of emotion at a mediation” and “7 Strategies to overcome common emotional threats in mediations”.  

They are unable to self-manage or make decisions.  

This is a specific personality type and these clients have trouble giving clear instructions and expect you to make all the decisions for them.  This type of person is looking for a figure of authority to take control, often so they can avoid the consequences of making the wrong decision.

With these types of clients, it is important to create clear boundaries and stick to them.  Don’t provide opinions or advice that are outside your expertise and don’t be afraid to continually remind your client of the advice you can and can’t give.

In the lead up to, or during the mediation, if your client is insisting they can’t make decisions without your help, then recommend alternatives to them – is there a support person they can involve or is it appropriate they speak with their financial advisor or accountant?  Your client needs to be aware of the difference between you providing legal advice and counseling services.

Involve your mediator

Lastly, your mediator will have extensive experience in dealing with all types of difficult clients and will be able to offer you support and guidance.  Don’t be afraid to let the mediator know about any issues or troubles you are having with your client, as I can guarantee they’ve seen it all before.

If you would like to discuss the skills and approach that I bring to a mediation, please contact me on 0412 048 456 or by email on jsomerville@r3resolutions.com.au.