Regardless of how much career professionals screen, we still wind up with challenging clients. It happens because even the most difficult client is often unaware they are difficult. And on the surface, they often seem charming and even ingratiating. While we can learn the red flags, we can't catch them all. And even those clients who initially seem that they'll be easy to work with can quickly become a real challenge.
The problem is that we are screening at the conscious level but people are difficult at the unconscious level. They will unconsciously answer questions based on what they believe to be the “correct” answer. They will charm you until they hit a stone wall. They seem manipulative but often are not even aware of what they're doing.
There are clients we can't work with – those who are abusive and have no visible window of self-awareness. They purposely manipulate. These clients are fairly easy to spot. They generally don't try to hide who they are. During the first call they're demanding and often inappropriate. Professionals new to the field may be concerned about offending these clients, but that's rather a catch 22 as they take just about everything personally. With these clients, the best you can do is extricate yourself from the situation as quickly as possible. Another trick is to be happy with what you say to them – regardless of their reaction. The longer you work with these clients, the more ammunition you give them. Remember that when they complain about you, they will be talking either to people who know to take them with a grain of salt or their friends who are in complete agreement with them (and who you would not want to work with anyway).
But then there are clients who are uncooperative and fearful. Initially they may seem close minded and unaware, but there are glimpses that they are willing to work. They may have spoken with a therapist and made some progress there. Perhaps they mention being spiritual or meditating. Maybe they have been taking classes in an effort to better themselves. You see insight.
What can be done with these clients who present hypocrisy openly, who “yeah, but...” you at every turn, who don't do assignments and then blame you for their lack of progress? These clients are often coming from their survival instinct to keep the status quo but they aren’t aware that's where they're grounded.
There are a number of ways to work with these clients:
Meditation is a good way to reach the unconscious. It by-passes the conscious mind, allowing the client to go deeper. People think of meditation as zoning out but it's more about tuning in. Guided meditations work best for beginners or those in an unproductive mindset. Sounds True has a large catalog of meditations as does Brain Sync by Kelly Howell.
With the client who responds “yeah but,” everything must be their idea. Ask them what they feel they need to do over the next week. When they say “I hired you to tell me” - in whatever way they say it – explain that working together is a partnership and while you can help them create the steps they need to take in order to get where they want to be, it's important that they share their thoughts. I have a rule with these clients – I make it a game. If they say anything along the lines of “yeah but” they need to present two alternate solutions.
Repeat their own words back to them within the same session. “I know that you want to work on... but what I just heard you saying is... Which is true? Or is it both?” It's important to keep sarcasm and frustration out of your voice.
Sandwich the truth between two positives. For example, you may tell the client “Over the last month I've seen you making huge changes. Are you aware that you … ? It really is something to celebrate. I think the only piece left to work on in this area is... And I know you can do that because you've already ...”
Acknowledge genuine progress. Be specific. The unconscious is encouraged by compliments.
When your client is being especially obstinate, realize they are likely coming from fear. That is the unconscious coming up. Fear inspires frustration which strengthens it's resolve. Compassion seems counter-intuitive, but it melts fear.
Managing expectations can help with all of your clients, but especially the challenging ones. Guarantees can be seen as a challenge by difficult clients. Initial assessments can help too. As a therapist, I utilize the Enneagram. It helps me to understand how to approach clients – what their strengths and fears are, how they can best hear compliments and constructive criticism. It also gives me a yard stick for relative emotional health as well.
Aricia LaFrance is a therapist and career consultant currently writing “The Psychology of The Successful Job Seeker.” She will be presenting a lecture on mindset and the career seeker at the NCDA Career Develoment Conference in San Antonio, Texas, June 30-July 2, 2011. LaFrance is a certified career professional, marketing strategist and author of "Unlocking the Secrets of the Successful Career Seeker." She can be reached at www.aricialafrance.com