Most of us in the helping professions encounter angry clients. The client who walks through the door of your agency may have face many barriers, whether real or perceived that have left them frustrated and wanting to vent – you may become the target of their anger. What do you do? If you become defensive the situation could escalate and your working relationship with that client could become impossible to turn around and frustrating for both you and the client.
Systemic and institutional barriers are the source of much frustration for our clients. Many of our clients find it hard to deal with governmental and non-governmental organizations, finding them impersonal and rigid. The resistance and anger you face may even be exacerbated if clients are mandated to the program you are delivering. In many cases the person who walks through your doors brings with them a history of feeling neglected and even abused by the institutions and agencies meant to help them. Now you, the helping professional have come into contact with an angry client and you are left in a position to unpack that anger and help the client move ahead in their lives.
First and foremost you safety is important and if you are experiencing hostile and aggressive behaviour take the necessary steps to protect yourself, your colleagues and clients by having procedures in place to deal with potentially violent situations at your organization. However, these cases are relatively rare, but it is always important that your organization have a plan in place to protect employees and clients both.
In most cases an angry client won’t resort to violence and with some care and attention you can de-escalate their anger and even prove yourself to be an ally in their struggle to negotiate ‘the system’ and to move ahead with their lives.
The principals of ACT, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy can be used to help you deal with angry clients. The 2 main processes of ACT are: acceptance and mindfulness of one’s thoughts and emotions, and behavioural change through commitment to one’s values. ACT asks us to become mindful and act on our values and not react impulsively to situations that arise, by ACCEPTING our thoughts and emotions, COMMITTING to our values, and TAKING committed action toward living in the moment and leading a life with integrity. You may not be able to do this therapeutic work with your clients given the mandate of your program, but you can use these principals to inform the actions you take when work with angry clients.
As a helping professional you must be prepared to face your own emotions and the struggles you when working with difficult clients. If we use ACT in our work we don’t
take our own thoughts and emotions out of the equation, but we can become aware
of how our thoughts and emotions affect our work. Bring mindfulness practice to your work with clients.
Steps to help you to bring mindfulness to your work:
- Practice mindfulness at work, or for that matter in your life. To start with develop awareness of your breath. Several times a day check in with yourself and bring your focus to your breath, watch in your mind’s eye the inhalation and exhalation of your breath, note any tension you are feeling and bring your attention and awareness to the thoughts and emotions you are feeling at that very moment. This takes practice so use cues to bring your attention to the breath like your phone ringing. If you bring your attention to the breath and become aware of the thoughts and emotions you are experiencing in the moment every time the phone rings the effects will be cumulative and before you know it you will master this mindfulness skill.
- Identify your values as a professional and create a mission statement for yourself as a touchstone that will centre you and keep top of mind the values you believe in.
- Identify what actions you can take with difficult client that are in keeping with your values as a professional. Sometimes it is good to role play the course of action you will take with a difficult client. Mindfulness practices are skills and like all skills the more you practice the better you will become at using these skills. If you have a dreaded meeting booked with a difficult, angry and resistant client a bit of role playing with a colleague prior may help you to more effectively deal with that client when next you meet. As well it will give you an opportunity to play out the TAKING COMMITTED ACTION step of ACT.
Applying your ACT work in a client situation.
- When you are with an angry client check in with your feelings and emotions. Identify what thoughts and emotions you are experiencing and try to gain some distance from them by saying to yourself “I am thinking angry thoughts about this client” and “I am feeling frustrated emotions toward this client”. Don’t judge your thoughts and emotions, try to step outside of those thoughts and emotions and observe – don’t react. Just identify the thoughts and emotions, the distance you create from those thoughts and emotions will help you to respond, rather than react to the client in your office. The difference being a reaction is knee jerk and being responsive is becoming mindful of your own thoughts and emotions at that very moment, while holding on to your values and responding with actions that honours your values and not your current emotional and cognitive state.
- Next listen to the client, let them know that they are being heard. Encourage them to talk and let them know that you aren’t judging or drawing any conclusions. Listen for emotional content and check in with them by asking clarifying questions about their emotional state and empathize, eg., “I am sensing that you are frustrated and I can imagine how that must make you feel angry”. Use active listening to understand what they are experiencing and to let them know that you are on their side.
- Acknowledge their frustration. Put yourself in their shoe, find compassion for them. You may not be able to change the barriers or procedures that are causing frustration, but you can recognize the difficulties that they face. For example, “I can imagine the frustration you must feeling in dealing with the ministry, it sounds like it is a dehumanizing and anger provoking situation for you.” You don’t have to agree with them, but it is a good practice to empathize and find compassion for their suffering. Very often our clients face with systemic issues and large institutions and organizations can magnify these issues. Acknowledgement of these issues don’t make them go away, but they go a long way in building rapport and trust so you can open up the helping relationship.
- Ask them what they would like to see. Have the client identify their values and goals – what they would like to see happen. Their goals may or may not be achievable within the organizational structures, however, it is important for them to feel heard. For example, “In an ideal world what would you like to see happen?”
- Find a common ground. Help the client to identify common goals, and clarify expectations, you may not be able to deliver services to meet their expectations. However, if you are fortunate enough to prove you are an ally you may be able to find a compromise that will work for the client within the services offered.
- Ask them if you can become partners in their success.
Angry clients often feel like they are being forced to adhere to an external
authority and very often their anger is push back. Ask them for their
permission – don’t assume you have it.
- Help them to create a roadmap to achieve their goals. Don’t impose. Very often we may have an idea what is best for the client. However, if you don’t have ‘buy in’ the relationship will never develop and all you will face is more
resistant and potentially more anger.
Working with angry clients is hard work. However, when we develop mindfulness of how we are affected by our clients behaviour in the counselling setting we can begin the focus on what is most important to us – our values as helping professionals. Learning and developing mindfulness practices isn’t going to change the number of angry clients that walk through your door, or even the causes of their anger, just the way you respond to them as a helping professional. You can respond in kind with anger and frustration, or you can respond with compassion and understanding – the choice is yours.