How to Handle Difficult Clients

Advice for counselors, and a wake-up call to clients.

Posted Feb 25, 2021 | Reviewed by Kaja Perina

Allan Rotgers, Flickr, CC 2.0
Source: Allan Rotgers, Flickr, CC 2.0

If you’re a helping professional, chances are you’ve had difficult clients. Here are composite examples of difficult clients I’ve had and what has worked best in working with them.

And if you are a client or patient, perhaps you will see something of yourself in one or more of these, which might help you get more out of the relationship.

Clients who keep externalizing responsibility

One such client particularly comes to mind. Her externalization of responsibility knows no end. She blames her lack of motivation to look for a job on, at different times: Resenting her father pressuring her to get a job, her parents' divorce (10 years ago), that her dog was aggressive with another dog, the COVID-lamed job market, sexism, capitalism, and hand pain that makes typing difficult. Yet she admits to playing hand-intensive video games for an hour or more each day.

I’ve found that challenging such externalization, even tactfully, doesn’t work. Whatever the root causes of the externalization, it's pretty baked-on, tough to clean off. So I generally respond to such excuse-making with something that doesn’t imply disagreement nor major assent. I might nod or say, “I understand” and then change the topic to something that the client might be open to working on. The progress is slower than I'd like, but with clients like her, it's as fast as I believe we can go.

Hard-to-place clients

Career counselors, especially those that charge clients for their services, tend to get many clients who are difficult to place; that is they have a hard time landing a job, usually some combination of weaknesses in ability, expertise, drive, personality, appearance, and being demographically out of favor.

Such clients often are pessimistic about their prospects and disparaging of themselves. To motivate them to give the full-on effort that they’ll likely need to be successful, it’s wise to early on, unearth their strengths. As a career counselor, that can mean gathering nuggets for their resume, so they can see in print all that they bring to the table.

A psychotherapist might similarly ask questions to help the client inventory their life’s wins, with regard to career, relationships, family, or simply that they’ve been an unusually kind person. That sometimes is the case with clients who have suffered a lot. It can make them kinder, more empathic.

Clients who don’t do their homework

Even when clients propose their homework assignment and say they’re eager to do it, some clients return having done little or nothing. I’m likely to ask, "Were any of these operative: You concluded that the assignment was wrong; you got busy with more important things; you got stuck trying to do the homework; you decided, perhaps unconsciously, that you don’t want (insert the stated goal, e.g., to explore a career)  or fear, for example, of failure, rejection, or even success."

Long-winded clients

I am well aware of the downsides of interrupting. In fact, I recently wrote a post describing them. But with long-winded clients, I tend to interrupt when I feel the client would benefit. I’ll then paraphrase what s/he said, guess what I think the upshot would be, ask a question, or redirect the conversation. Typically, the client seems to appreciate being reined in.

I also often teach the traffic-light-rule, which I’ve written about ad nauseam on these pages: During the first 30 seconds of talking, your light is green. In the next 30 it’s yellow: the listener is increasingly likely to have heard enough and wants to say or ask something. After one minute, your light is red: Stop or ask a question. If there’s more you want to say, there’s time after your conversation partner has had his or her turn. Because the long-winded client often loses track of time, we practice by having the client talk while looking at a kitchen timer.

Yes-but clients

A good counselor tries to get ideas to come from the client but, especially if s/he feels stuck, a tactful suggestion couched as a question is in order, for example, “I’m wondering if X might help. What do you think?” Alas, some clients “yes but” anything you suggest.

The solution here is obvious: Don’t offer suggestions. Yes, that likely means that the client will struggle longer. But the good counselor flexes to accommodate what will likely work best with each client.

The takeaway

Yes, it’s occasionally wise to “fire” a client. That’s especially true if you feel unlikely to help adequately, or if your waiting list contains people you’re more likely to help. But often, the aforementioned tactics can be of enough value to justify continuing to work with difficult clients. And if your work ends up helping, you both will feel especially good because both of you knew it was a challenge.

I read this aloud on YouTube.