Strengthening Your Practice: How to Handle Frustrated Clients

Margaret Floyd Barry

September 13, 2022

Just the other day, I received a fairly aggressive and accusatory text from a client. There were all sorts of insinuations – some spoken, some unspoken but alluded to – and I could feel the hair stand up on the back of my neck. My defenses were raised, my heart rate sped up, I felt a little nauseous. 

Two thoughts rushed through my mind in very quick succession: 

First: how dare she accuse me of this after ALL I’ve done for her and her family? 

Followed quickly by that gut-sinking feeling of “what did I miss?” 

We’ve all been there. 

Despite the fact that I've helped hundreds of people heal from the most complex health issues and that I've built a strong, sustainable business, I can still feel stressed, anxious, and overwhelmed when a client expresses frustration in our work together. And, with good reason…  

We go the distance in service to our clients, often far above and beyond what they’ve paid us to do. Since much of that work – not to mention the emotional weight of witnessing and guiding their health journey – happens behind the scenes rather than in session, it remains unseen and unappreciated.

Our clients, on the other hand, are going through their own process and journey, much of which we don’t see either. We know that this work is challenging on many levels – logistically, physically, sometimes financially, emotionally – and it can bring up even the heartiest person’s “stuff”. Sometimes, that gets vented on us as their clinician. 

As I gathered myself after receiving this text message, I recognized I’m not the only one who has experienced this. And with 15 years in practice, I’ve learned a thing or two about how to handle these situations. Done right, you’ve just deepened the trust and connection with your client. Handled the wrong way, things can easily blow up completely and you may lose your client. 

Here are my key steps for addressing any kind of aggressive, critical, or accusatory message coming from a client: 

  • Feel the sadness of it.
    As my leadership coach, Debra Joy, always says – you have to feel the feeling in order to move through it. Having an unhappy client is no fun and it’s entirely appropriate to feel badly upon receiving a communications like this. Don’t try to push away this feeling – for your own health and sanity, it’s important to let this move through you. Repressed feelings do much more harm than sitting in the temporary discomfort of the emotion when you first experience it.
  • Take some time to appreciate your client’s perspective.
    People don’t lash out because they want to be mean. They lash out because they’re hurt, they’re scared, they’re in pain. Take some time to put yourself in your client’s shoes. What might they be feeling right now? What might have inspired this action? Where are they at in their protocol? What’s going on for them personally? You can’t know the answers to all of these questions, but the simple exercise of putting yourself in their shoes will do wonders to help you feel compassion for whatever it is they are experiencing that caused this outburst.
  • What about their communication is true?
    When someone lashes out, it’s tempting to just write them off as angry and irrational. And yet, there is always some truth hidden in the outburst, and it’s important that we take the time to sniff it out. This part can be especially painful and hard, because it forces us to take stock of our responsibility in the situation, and it’s much easier to just blame the client or dismiss them as “freaking out”. But of course that strategy only inflames the situation; it never resolves the issue or brings people closer together.
  • Where is there a breakdown of communications?
    Every challenging interaction with a client involves a breakdown of communications to some degree. As such, your next task is to figure out where this happened. Did you not explain a piece of this process to your client? Was there something you said that was misunderstood? Try to step away from blame and look at the situation as objectively as possible. You may very well have explained something in great detail, but your client mis-heard or misunderstood it – this is valuable feedback for you! 
  • Draft a response but Do Not Send It.
    With all of the information you’ve gathered up to this point, you can now draft a thoughtful reply. Make sure you: 

    – Show empathy and an understanding of their perspective. You want to validate their feelings. (Of note: This doesn’t mean they are “right” – let that go – this is about letting them know they’ve been seen and heard.)

    – Take responsibility for your piece of the puzzle and explain how you’ll do things differently next time.

    – Clarify anything that needs to be clarified. Where there has been a communication breakdown, make sure you acknowledge that and take steps to correct the miscommunication.

    – Open the door to a phone call, zoom or in-person communication. Written communications can feel very hostile no matter how positive the intentions of the writer. Sometimes the best strategy is to hop on the phone and talk things through in person.

    Before you send it, WAIT. Ideally, sleep on it first. I cannot emphasize this enough and I have learned from very painful personal experience that even the response you think is beautifully crafted needs space for consideration. (I wish I could say I’d learned this once and never did it again… but sadly this is one I have had to learn on multiple excruciating occasions!)
  • When you send it, ensure your energy and intentions are clean
    When you do send the message (or pick up the phone to call your client), do an energy check. How are you feeling about this client and situation? It’s appropriate to feel some remorse, sadness, even some anxiety about how they will receive your message. But if you are feeling vengeful, angry, entitled, or “better than”, you’ve got to clean up that energy first. Revisit step #2 and build your compassion for them. When you can send this message from a place of love and concern, with a desire for resolution rather than wanting to be “right”, you really can’t go wrong. 
  • Lastly, debrief with yourself
    An interaction like this is challenging, but it is also a wonderful learning opportunity. What will you do next time to ensure this situation isn’t repeated? Make sure you take the time to put any systems in place to ensure you’re growing and evolving as a result of this experience, rather than risk it repeating down the road. If you have an assistant or team, ensure you’re sharing it with them so that they all benefit from the learning you’ve received. 

I’m happy to report that I used this exact process with that frustrated client, and we’ve come to a place of strong mutual understanding, respect and trust. I’ve also learned how to better communicate some details of my work and put in place an extra checkpoint to ensure certain communications aren’t missed. All in all, it was a challenging interaction but both my practice structure and I are stronger for it. 

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