Bob Murray has five golden rules for dealing with an angry client
In times of covid-19, societal tensions and a severe economic downturn people are becoming increasingly angry – including your clients.
They may seem angry with those opposing them in a particular matter; angry with you or the way you’re handling their case; with your firm or with your invoice.
They are being unreasonable. Their conversation may become filled with generalisations like ‘always’ and ‘never’. Those words often signal that the person using them is not really talking to the person they’re with, rather addressing someone from their past (most likely from childhood). The client is angry with you because they couldn’t safely be angry with the person from the past. When someone is in a state of anger the fear centre of the brain, the amygdala, takes over and reasoning becomes impossible. Their anxiety has reached such a peak that the only relief is through anger.
According to most researchers, anger is attributed to several factors such as past experiences and genetic predispositions. Recent research indicates most of us get angry at least once a day. Usually, we don’t display it and it passes harmlessly. But in some people, it’s a learned response to difficult situations. A child from a household where there is little serious discord can mostly control their anger but a child from a troubled household will learn anger as a coping mechanism.
A person usually goes through six stages on the pathway to rage and its aftermath. At the first three stages, anger is controllable either by the person or by an outside intervention.
Stage one: irritation
The client is irritated; queries everything; '¨challenges you constantly. Their often '¨persistent questions are ones to which there’s no clear answer. The client is not seeking answers. You may notice them getting physically closer – like a predator sneaking up on its prey. Whatever you say will probably be wrong. They may get annoyed at petty things that have nothing to '¨do with the matter.
At this stage the anger can be headed off. Remain calm (this can prevent escalation) and answer the questions you can. Don’t minimise or belittle their questions or dismiss their concerns as if they are irrelevant – they are not irrelevant to your client.
One danger is that you might get annoyed and become the focus of their growing emotion. Try turning the questioning or the conversation around so it’s about another person or object which is separate to you, the client or the matter. Whatever you do, remain respectful.
Stage two: refusal
At this stage, a person will often develop a new refusal to accept advice or compromise. It may be over a particular issue or more general.
The client can become sharp or snappy; little things can quickly become big issues and the focus of the refusal to budge. They may see any change or compromise as a threat to their safety.
Their new refusal to compromise, or even discuss change or new advice, is a ‘freeze’ they have got into from which they’re emotionally unable to free themselves. It’s annoying, but it’s wise to see it for what it is – the second stage of a process leading to an outburst of anger. You may not even have been party to the first stage which might have happened hours or days before.
We normally say anger has a short fuse but that’s far from being universally true. The anxiety build-up can take years before even the first stage of anger appears; then there can be gaps between the stages. However, you may notice a build-up of anxiety, irritability and stubbornness in the client over time.
It’s important not to tell the person that they’re wrong – it’s never a good idea anyway as emotionally it makes you an enemy. Try to get them to talk about their fears and their concerns; don’t push them into a corner; and give them some space. And keep calm.
Anger can be diluted by turning the conversation to the specifics of the underlying, often non-legal, concerns. Phrases such as, “In many ways you’re right, I can see that. But I want to know what’s particularly concerning you”, can be effective.
Make statements showing you value the '¨relationship. This tactic is good because it '¨gets the reward, trust and bonding neurochemical oxytocin flowing which can counter the surge of cortisol that’s neurochemically '¨behind the anger. At this stage, dialogue is still possible if you remain calm, curious, supportive and specific.
Stage three: outburst
This comes in the form of a verbal or behavioural outburst. It is rarely violent or threatening; and any harm done will likely be to self or to objects – often ones they value. Frequently, the main damage will be to their relationship support network or their standing within their team, family or your firm.
At stage three, it’s more difficult for you to remain calm but the key actions you must '¨take are: Relax as much as possible and don’t fuel the outburst. Don’t argue, tempting as it might be. Use calming words and actions that show no threat to them. Maintain your distance from the '¨angry person. Be careful not to become a victim. You can and should still express your needs but do it calmly. Quickly acknowledge any diminution of the onslaught.
Stage four: intimidation
This stage involves threats, intimidation and possible violence and is reached when the angry person:
Finds themselves in confrontation with another angry individual. Senses the other person or group is in victim mode (showing fear, indecision '¨or anxiety). Feels that intimidation or even violence is the only path to resolution.
The angry individual can often, paradoxically, seem calm on the surface – almost rational. However, it’s important to remember that the threats and the possibility of violence are real.
Don’t try to reason with them as almost anything you say will be interpreted by their emotional centres as provocation. Anyway, they’re not listening in any meaningful way. If possible, leave the situation or insist they do. Your show of calm strength is your best defence.
If you can’t absent yourself or they won’t, get help. You may be in danger, but the presence of others will often have a mitigating effect on the actions of the angry individual.
But even now, they do have a modicum of self-control. They believe their words or behaviour will somehow resolve the situation and will rectify their unmet emotional or physical need.
Stage five: rage
This is rage and loss of control. This stage is not always present but isn’t inevitable. It is always short-lived but the individual can be dangerous to themselves and others. They may suddenly sabotage an important project or may even do violence to you, their colleagues or their bosses.
The only effective way to deal with this stage of anger is to back off or contain the person.
Stage six: calm
This is the stage of emotional calm. All rage passes, often quickly. The human system cannot maintain the energy level needed for long and it’s not designed to. After the outburst, the person usually becomes calm although the anger may reappear if the underlying issues are not dealt with.
However, there are situations when a person can quite suddenly become angry for no apparent reason. These are due to hormonal disturbances causing a sudden spike in cortisol, or to a process called methylation which stops the anger-suppressing neurochemical oxytocin from doing its job. This often lies behind sudden temper tantrums in children and adults.
In this situation, there’s little the angry person or anyone around them can do about it except stay calm and let the anger play out.
- Whatever the immediate cause of anger '¨is, the golden rules for handling client '¨anger are:
- Stay calm.
- Don’t dispute or contradict the angry person.
- Try to avoid showing your own irritation or anger.
- Stay respectful.
Leave or get help if you’re threatened or verbally abused.
Dr Bob Murray is a behavioural psychologist with an interest '¨in legal and professional services. For the latest on human behaviour and wellness, and how these relate to leadership and strategy, sign up for Dr Murray’s weekly newsletter Today’s Research fortinberrymurray.com