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Listen and De-escalate

How to Calm an Irate Client in 90 Seconds or Less

By Doug Noll

An irate client is bad news. This technique allows for emotions to calm and for rationality to return — in less than two minutes.

irate client

At one time or another in your career, you will confront an irate client. Unfortunately, law school does not prepare us for dealing with clients. We are dependent on our own life skills and common sense to handle these situations. Presumably, as we gain experience in practice, we get better at it. However, you don’t have to be a senior lawyer with 30 years of practice to be able to calm an angry client quickly and effectively.

Here’s how to do it.

First, for the first 90 seconds, ignore the client’s words.

I know, I know, words are important. Trust me. Ignore the words for the first 90 seconds. If you listen to the words with your usual lawyer ears, you might get triggered and emotional. You might get pissed off. You might become impatient or frustrated. And if any of those things happen to you, you are likely to say the worst thing possible to your client. So, ignore the words.

Second, guess at the emotions the client might be experiencing in that moment.

This is a little tricky because we have been trained to be dispassionate and unemotional concerning client problems. Use your own experience and common sense to guess at what the emotional experience of the moment is.

Third, state back the irate client’s emotional experience with a very short, direct “you” statement, such as “you are angry.”

Do not ask a question like “are you angry?” And, do not use an “I” statement, such as “what I hear you saying is that you are angry.” Keep the statement direct and focused on the client.

If the client corrects you, go with the correction. For example,

“You are really angry.”

“No, I’m not really angry. I’m frustrated.”

“You are really frustrated.”

“Yes, I’m really frustrated.”

It might seem patronizing or disrespectful to reflect back the emotional experience of an irate client. Neuroscience shows us through brain scanning studies, that when we reflect back the emotional experience of the speaker, the brain’s emotional centers quiet down and the prefrontal cortex comes back online very quickly. While the exact process is still unknown, it seems as if, as a listener, you are lending your prefrontal cortex to the speaker to allow the speaker to process his or her emotional experience in the moment.

This processing allows for emotions to calm and for rationality to return.

Test It Out

To test out whether or not this really works, try labeling the emotions of your local barista in the morning. When you pick up your cappuccino, say to the barista “You seem really happy this morning.” Observe carefully how the barista responds. You will see a big smile and nod of acknowledgment. You did it.

Practice this emotional labeling in safe and low-risk social environments for a couple of days before you try it on a client, a spouse or your child. With just a few days of practice, you will become skillful at this de-escalation strategy. As you begin to apply it, you will see some amazing transformations in the people around you.

When you are faced with that next angry client, you will be well equipped to de-escalate quickly and efficiently. In addition, your client will be eternally grateful that you took the time to listen deeply.

Douglas E. Noll is an AV-rated lawyer and full-time neutral. He has been honored by California Lawyer magazine as a California Attorney of the Year. He is the author of “De-Escalate: How to Calm an Angry Person in 90 Seconds or Less.” Learn more at his website, and follow him on Twitter @dougnoll.

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Categories: Attorney Client Relations, Managing a Law Firm
Originally published July 20, 2020
Last updated August 11, 2023
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