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A terrible jittery feeling spread through my stomach. The lump in my throat hardened and my head began to spin. ‘How did I find myself in this situation?’ I asked myself, heart sinking. I was on the phone. On the other end of the line was an angry client.
A simple misunderstanding resulted in a missed deadline. The client was fuming, furious. I could practically feel the steam coming out of his ears. Before long he raised his voice, began swearing, and refused to listen to a word I was saying.
Have you been there?
In this case, the fault was equal on both sides. The client could have communicated clearly, and we could have had systems in place to ensure that a miscommunication of the sort didn’t go unnoticed.
But this article is not about fault – who’s right or wrong.
It’s about what to do when you find yourself in a sticky situation with an angry client who’s expressing anger, or crossing the line to disrespect, regardless of who did something wrong.
A little disclaimer before we dive in:
When a mistake is made, or something unexpected happens, of course there’s room for frustration and anger. If you paid someone and you feel they did something wrong, you’re certainly justified and entitled to your feelings.
But, the way I see it, even when we’re angry, we’re all still people, and we should still treat each other with respect.
Step 1: Start with Kindness and Acknowledgment
Even if you’re right and they’re wrong, even if you have a lot to say and it feels very pressing and urgent to say it right then, nine times out of ten before people can really listen to you… they need their own thoughts and feelings acknowledged first.
Assuming they don’t cross the line to being disrespectful, all you have to do is listen (truly listen) and try to understand things from their point of view.
Put yourself in their shoes: how would you feel if you were in that situation? Only respond once you’ve truly been able to connect to that.
So if they say: “I’m so angry, I can’t believe this happened! This deadline was so important and I can’t believe it was missed!”
You can respond: “I totally understand how you feel. I would feel the exact same way if I was expecting something to be done by a certain date and it wasn’t. I am so sorry you had to go through all that stress and frustration. That really sucks.”
Don’t be afraid to be candid and honest. Being open and true in the things you say is the first step to resolving any conflict with a client.
Once you’ve heard them out fully (don’t cut them off, again, unless they’re disrespectful, but I’ll get to that in a moment), and acknowledged them, in most cases they’ll actually feel heard, at which point you can communicate your experience of what happened and they’ll actually be open to hearing it.
Step 2: If things go sour, it’s time to set boundaries.
Setting boundaries is hard, especially in the heat of the moment. But in business, and in life, it’s one of the most important things you’ll learn how to do.
Your boundaries are for you to decide: what are you ok with and what are you not ok with, and does that change under various types of circumstances?
- Is it ok for a client to yell at you and disrespect you when they’re right?
- Is it ok for a client to yell at you and disrespect you when they’re wrong?
- Is it ok for a client to yell at you and disrespect you when the fault is equal?
My personal answer to all three of these questions is “No”. The way I see it, it’s never ok for someone to treat you in such a way.
Once you know what your boundaries are, the moment someone crosses them, you stop them.
Here’s a good example of what you can say:
“Hey! Kevin, Kevin… I completely understand that you’re angry, and I really want to hear everything that you have to say, but we’re both people here and I have a need to be spoken to respectfully. That way I can hear you out and we can resolve this. Are you able to do this?”
Let’s break this down:
- If they won’t let you say what you have to say kindly, you’ll have to push through the angry energy. Sometimes this can mean raising your voice, cutting them off, saying their name, etc.
- Once you’ve created space for you to communicate your boundary, let them know what it is clearly and directly.
- Tie it back to them. Explain how by them sticking to your boundary they’ll actually get what they want, too, which is to be heard and understood and for the situation to be resolved.
- Ask them if it’s something they’re able to do. When you set a boundary, they have a choice of whether or not they can or are able to follow it, and you’re simply asking them what their choice is going to be.
In many cases, people get caught in their own anger and may simply not be aware of how they’ve been talking to you. Abruptly snapping them out of that, and holding up a mirror to how they’re acting could immediately change the direction of the conversation.
In this case, they’ll likely respond positively to your boundary and the conversation will continue maybe angrily, but respectfully. At this point you can go back to kindness and acknowledgement: hear them out fully, express your experience respectfully, and work towards a fair solution.
But it’s also possible they’ll say “no.”
It’s possible that your client is not able to respect your boundary. In this case, as difficult as it is, you have to be willing to walk away from the conversation.
Your response can be along these lines:
“Ok, thank you for letting me know. In this case, I’ll have to end the conversation here and we’ll have to talk at a different time when you are able to respect my need to be treated with respect. I’d really love to hear you out and be able to resolve this, but it is very important to me that we treat each other with respect as none of us had any malicious intent here, and that’s something I just can’t compromise on.”
After this, they’ll either change their tune, or you’ll have to walk away from the conversation.
It’s scary, but boundaries are something you can’t compromise on.
There’s no way around it.
This is scary.
And it’s just as scary each time you have to do it.
But I can tell you from my experience, as well as many other business owners and freelancers that I’ve spoken to…
When you decide that “No matter what, I will not allow anyone to treat me that way. Even if I make a huge mistake and I’m in the wrong, I still deserve to be treated with respect…”
…When you set that boundary for yourself, and act on it when necessary, every single time it’s crossed, you’ll draw to yourself more people and situations that are respectful of you and your needs, and push away and repel ones that don’t.
Where do you stand on this?
Have you had to set boundaries with angry clients before? What’s worked / not worked for you? Are there cases in which you feel it’s ok to let someone cross your boundaries? Or when is it time to just break up?
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