I am excited to speak here on ways we can help clients move through difficulties, without distress for you or the client. How? Put plainly, people react to the way we speak to them. Being skillful in how you speak to people brings you real confidence to turn around a difficult situation and get the results you need. I’ll show you what I mean.

Take a quiet moment and consider the following statement: Imagine being so skilled in your personal communications that you can navigate any conversation: the easy, the delicate, and the difficult. What would that mean to your work and to your life?

Many counsellors and coaches, especially you career counsellors, work with people whose search is often painful for them. Maybe they’ve been flung into job loss or, maybe they’ve just had enough and want a change. Their livelihood is threatened and they don’t know what’s ahead. So you begin in earnest and the roadblocks appear. Their difficulty becomes your difficulty and of course you want this client to be successful. But we are after all, only human.

As examples, we’ll cover Phrases to Avoid and Organizing Technology, but first we’ll look at a couple of invented clients through the following four strategies and techniques:

Choice of words and tone – also known as, it’s not what you say but how you say it.
For example, if you say to someone What’s the matter with you? you’ll likely get a defensive response like Nothing’s the matter with me. Why will you get that answer? Because the question is accusatory. Instead, ask Is something wrong?, or Is everything okay? You’ll likely get an answer you can work with. Notice also how the choice of words affects your tone.

How to critique – if it’s a project, or a performance review, or a struggling professional relationship, always start with the big picture, not the details, and include all the positive things there are. Get your listener on-side. Talk about the work, not what I want or what you did. Use phrases like: this might really benefit from having a … Or, another example: I can see you’ve worked hard on this and there are some really good results. I do have a few questions and suggestions so let’s tuck in and see what we find.

Self-management – is defined as the use of self-awareness to produce a desired change in behaviour. Being self-aware takes some effort and anger is the biggest sinkhole for us all. Ask yourself, for example: am I angry about this? Or, am I bringing anger into this situation from an unrelated incident. Either way, there are many things you can do.

Always take a moment to consider, to be self-aware. Better to take an extra 30 seconds or more to settle your own hash, than have an unproductive encounter. This is the essence of this thinking right here. If you’re caught off guard, just excuse yourself for a moment to calm down and think about how you want to handle the difficulty. Aim for a positive outcome.

Diffusing difficulties happens by skillfully assessing the situation and setting a professional and respectful tone. For example, you return to the meeting now a bit more calm, and suggest that feelings were running a bit high so let’s focus on what we have to do here. Avoid language like You said that … Again, it’s accusatory. You might add: we can talk about any problems around this afterward. This is a sound tactic because what started out to be problems often get solved in your conversation.

Here is the first invented client.

Here comes Jennifer. She’s 39 and was down-sized from her middle management job. She’s very unhappy, hostile and sarcastic. She hands you her resume which is out of date, in an old format, and not very helpful to her cause.

You might say to yourself, oh great, not another start from zero resume – which might come out as – Well, we can’t use this as it is, so plenty of work to do here. Or even just – Oh, okay. The words and tone here won’t get you very far. It will discourage Jennifer too.

Self-management steps in here by being careful not to pick up on her hostility and sarcasm. Here’s the chance to set the tone for your work together and to build trust. Take a beat and remember that you are the expert here and what you say matters a lot.

Instead, critique the resume with something like: you’ve done a lot of interesting and impressive things. I know you were with the company for a long time so let’s refresh this resume and really make it work for you.

See the difference? You have cleared the path to the work without creating defensiveness. How?
By starting with some self-management in not responding to Jennifer’s sarcasm, and by setting your conversational tone through the words you use,
Also by using technique to critique the resume with something positive and forward looking,
And in the process you’ve managed to diffuse the difficulty.

Skillful stuff this and a lot like dance steps, or tennis volleys.

Here’s the second invented client

Meet Dave. He’s 32 and has been fired from his job. He doesn’t really understand what the problem was, and he oozes ambition. You’ve been working with Dave for a couple of weeks and he shows up for appointments. But when he does he’s slouchy in his chair and seems disinterested. Plus he doesn’t do the work. Maybe it’s time to have the chat with Dave.

You greet him in your usual friendly way and he is sullen. You might now be frustrated and annoyed by being treated unprofessionally and want to say: Listen Dave, I wonder what we’re doing here because we’re not making much progress. I can’t force you to do the work.

Though all these things are true they are too confrontational. In your professionalism, you want Dave to be successful.

Try instead asking how his week went. He might grunt at you – okay I guess.
How did you do with the homework we talked about? Dave says he didn’t do it.
Ask – How can I help you with this? Our job here is to get you back in the saddle with all your great skills, and you do have great skills. There does seem to be a lot of resistance to our work and I’m a bit confused by that.

Frustrated, Dave starts shouting that this is no use and what do you know about my work anyway etc. Before he gets too far into it, quietly say “You’re shouting at me”.

Personal sidebar, I’ve been shouted at many times and each time I’ve used this, the shouter has stopped immediately and apologized. With Dave here, it’s diffused his misplaced anger, and you can now get to the business of sorting out what Dave plans to do with the opportunity in front of him.

Great self-management here, compassionate words and tone, and you have critiqued Dave’s time with you. That is – the work isn’t moving forward, that he has great skills and you’ve been straight about his resistance.

This might be the time to ask Dave to talk about being fired and how he’s dealing with it. Given Dave’s outburst, chances are he’s unresolved about it and that’s what’s in the way. He might not have spoken to anyone about it.

Remind him that he can say anything to you, in confidence, and that you’re there to help him. Let him speak and listen attentively. Show your compassion and don’t confront him. Guide him where you can to help him acknowledge that it was an unexpected setback for sure and that he has plenty of options.

Save the concrete work of job search until your next session. Chances are the next time you see Dave, he’ll be ready to work.

As you well know, difficult times make for difficult people. It’s common to struggle with feelings. The mission is to navigate that without adding further damage, and get them back on course. I’m not suggesting that it’s easy all the time but it is do-able.

Phrases to avoid

Don’t take this the wrong way. Watch them tense up. Don’t say it the wrong way

No offense but …Again watch them tense up. You’ve just announced that you’re about to offend the person. It’s not necessary.

I’m sorry to say … Again tension. Don’t apologise for what you’re about to say, say it in a way that doesn’t require apology, even if it’s something difficult.

Organizing technology

Sophie Turner led a very good webinar for OACM on March 8th of this year on the effect of technology on social skills and intimacy. Did you hear it? Sophie talked about many interesting things and of special meaning to our subject today is the constant interruption in our lives from technology.

To be interrupted in the middle of a sensitive conversation can be very problematic. So do your best to always protect your situation by turning off all phones and computers.
No rings and no pings and that applies to everyone in the room. Use a sign on the door that says you’re in a meeting, or a good old do not disturb sign. Have all these things in place before you begin your session or meeting. If you are interrupted, you’ll have to re-focus. An effective way of doing that is for the two of you to talk about the interruption – I am very sorry about that – it’s okay – etc. until the energy of the interruption has dissipated. Then return to your subject.

For us humans, there is some satisfaction in letting somebody have it. In truth it’s the easiest thing to do but there’s a big price to be paid for it because it damages relationships. That makes work harder. It costs co-operation, loyalty, focus and productivity. It makes a mess that then has to be cleared up. Why create that, when with some attention to how you say what you say, you can avoid it all. A bit of generosity goes a long way. And it’s way more fun. You’ll get a reputation for it too. I love to say that the best way to reduce stress is by creating less of it.

So, these are the basic steps to being so skillful in your personal communications that you can navigate any conversation: the easy, the delicate, and the difficult. Tuck them in your pocket and with practice they become second nature. Imagine that!

How has this changed your thinking about dealing with difficult clients? What ideas stick out for you? I’d be happy to hear your answers.

Eleanor James CPCC
“Say Anything to Anyone”
Personal Communications Consultant, Coach, Speaker