How to Master Difficult Conversations with Clients
Have you been avoiding a potentially difficult conversation with a client for fear of it going badly? The good news is that you are in solid company — some of the best and brightest lawyers procrastinate and avoid conflict. Introverts — and research finds a majority of lawyers are introverted — are especially prone to avoiding confrontation, according to Sondra Vansant in “Wired for Conflict.”
Dr. Larry Richard has written and spoken extensively about the typical lawyer personality type based on Caliper test scores from thousands of lawyers. Resiliency is one of the measured traits, and many lawyers score on the low end of the bell curve for the ability to recover quickly from setbacks. So if you have had a difficult or unpleasant conversation with a client in the past and are a lawyer with low resiliency, you may be especially keen to avoid a repeat of such a conversation.
Whatever your personality type or personal style, the bad news is that fretting about the conversation while avoiding it won’t make the issue go away. A better approach is to map out a strategy that maximizes the possibility of a favorable outcome.
- Begin with the end in mind. What’s the most desirable outcome you can imagine? What other outcomes might exist? Are any others acceptable to you?
- Change your shoes. Can you put yourself in your client’s shoes and see the issue from his perspective? What might your client be feeling about the situation?
- Examine your blind spots. Your client may not share your communication style. You may be familiar with communication style terminology — we each have a preferred style. Does your client tend to be talkative and friendly? Is she direct to the point of abruptness? Does he seem to want to know all the facts and to have them presented logically? Adapt your style to that of your audience, for the best possible result.
- Don’t skip the dress rehearsal. Enlist a trusted friend or family member to role play with you. Act out all the possible scenarios: a relaxed talk followed by a wonderful outcome; a medium, but tolerable, result; a disaster. If you can’t rehearse with someone else, at least say what you anticipate saying out loud until the words flow naturally.
- Timing and location are key. Neutral ground is best, or at a minimum, orchestrate a neutral seating arrangement. Share a meal or a snack first, if possible. Low blood sugar has tripped up many an individual. Be very careful with alcohol, though. One drink may be relaxing and lead to a more convivial atmosphere, but more, especially on an empty stomach, can be inflammatory.
- Honor the word. If things are bad, say so. Don’t sugar-coat a messy situation (though don’t catastrophize it either). Own your part in the drama and don’t point fingers. Don’t try to make light of the situation with humor: “I’ve got good news and bad news.”
- Listen with your heart. Pay full attention, make eye contact, turn your torso to face your client. Listen for the meaning, not for an opening to rebut. Listen to the feeling behind the words. If your client becomes angry and vents his grievances, let him do so (within reason). Draw him out. “Was there anything else that was upsetting for you?” Often, after a person has been able to express their emotions to their content, they will become more willing to listen to your side of the story. If you try to cut her off before she’s finished — before she feels she’s been fully heard — it often exacerbates the problem.
- Know when to say when. If the conversation has taken a turn for the worse, and things seem to be escalating, table the issue and reschedule. “We seem to be getting off track. Why don’t we revisit this later, after we’ve both had a chance to think over our different perspectives?”
Not every conversation will be truly difficult. Some will simply be awkward or even surprisingly benign. But planning for all eventualities will help you take the challenge in stride.
(For more about personal styles measured by instruments such as the Myers-Briggs Personality Indicator, check out CAPT.org.)