When you are paid to argue for a living, it’s pretty much a given that your job description will encompass some teeth-gnashing, hand-wringing and good old-fashioned tantrum-throwing. But even though a lawyer’s world can be filled with anger, it is especially bitter when clients — the same people we work so hard to help — act aggressively toward us.
Aggressive clients interrupt and bully their attorneys, engage in awful power struggles and even, on occasion, may stab an attorney’s hand with a pencil in the middle of a hearing.
So let’s examine the root of the aggressive client’s problem. While the “needy” client is driven mainly by anxiety, the aggressive client can be driven by complex motivations. Some are control freaks, or simply used to always getting their own way. (Sound familiar, my fellow type A personalities?) Others are true-blue bullies whose aggressive behaviors are the reason they need a lawyer in the first place. Many aggressive clients display a blend of those characteristics, along with a healthy dose of distrust.
Your First Response Is the Most Important
Successfully handling an aggressive client is all about how you respond to the first act of hostility. Respond well and would-be aggressors may never bear their tiger teeth. Respond poorly and that bad kitty will chase you all the way through the jungle.
Zero tolerance for zingers. Many aggressive clients will test your victimization quotient with an initiating zinger, often in the form of a jokey insult, sideways compliment or mild verbal challenge. When you are zinged you must act immediately, and your response must match the zinger’s severity and purposefulness. But, just as important as the words you choose (or even more important) is your physical reaction.
Put on your best Lady Gaga. Do not flinch. Do not show fear! Do not widen your eyes like a frightened rabbit. Instead, channel Lady Gaga and display your inscrutable po-po-po-po-po-po-poker face. Any other reaction is the sweet meat upon which the aggressive client feeds. With your poker face in place, wait for silence. Then wait one beat more. Then respond to the zinger as if your veins were full of cold steely blood while you calmly and clearly state one of the following phrases, selected to match the zinger’s severity:
- “Not sure where you’re going with that. Run it by me again?”
- “I must not have heard you correctly. Could you restate what you just said?”
- “I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that comment. This time.”
Often such a response, coupled with the appropriate body language, is enough to pass the aggressive client’s victim taste test and they’ll move on to easier prey. Or, at the very least, you’ll put them temporarily off balance. While they are considering their next move, you can swiftly move on to a topic of your choice.
Like anything else, successfully navigating your initial response to client hostility takes practice and experience. If your response doesn’t go over as well as you’d hoped, it still counts as experience. Spend some time thinking about how you could have done better. Then when you meet your next aggressive client, smile inwardly and get ready to tackle another practice session.
Next time, I’ll discuss how to use your physical environment to your advantage and set boundaries that the aggressive client will respect.
Ryan Sullivan has been a trial lawyer for almost 14 years, practicing exclusively indigent criminal defense. A speaker, writer and trainer, Ryan believes a sense of humor and the ability to frame events positively, combined with solid professional skills, leads directly to career and business success. Her experience working with and training others in challenging careers has given her the skills to manage the toughest customers, speak and present persuasively, and shine under stressful circumstances. Ryan and her husband have three children, three dogs and a home suspended in a perpetual state of DIY remodeling.
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