Lawyers are naturally skeptical, cynical, and impatient and they tend to have lower emotional intelligence scores. All of this can impact a lawyer’s ability to effectively communicate with angry clients.
Regardless, figuring out why your client is angry will give you insight on how to handle a situation.
Let’s first take a look at some traditional signs of anger.
Telltale Signs of an Angry Client
There are myriad reasons a client might be angry with you. In fact, the anger may not be your or your staff’s fault. But your client’s anger, regardless whether it is justified, could be caused by the stress of being in a situation that requires an attorney, family problems (even if it’s not a family law issue), or simply because they don’t believe the wheels of justice are turning as they should.
Your clients’ anger may be obvious. Here are some dead giveaways:
- Yelling or screaming at you or your staff over the phone.
- Swearing or vulgarity.
- Speaking faster than usual.
- Sounding upset.
- Crying on the phone.
- Making irrational statements.
If you’re dealing with a client in person who is naturally loud, it can be difficult to tell whether they are actually angry. In this case, use body language signals:
- The client’s movements are more animated. Someone who naturally talks with their hands may make bigger motions with their hands.
- The client looks physically tense. They may even rub their neck.
- The client shakes their finger at you or points at you while using an accusatory tone.
- The client squints at you, lowers their eyebrows, or refuses to make eye contact.
Caveat: Don’t Exaggerate Signals
With body language, you can’t rely on just one signal. You need to see the whole picture using interpersonal communications skills.
Interpersonal communication is made up of verbal and non-verbal communication. It’s more than talking; it’s listening or watching for certain cues given off by your client to determine their true message or frame of mind. It’s a two-way process that involves the message (which can include the tone of voice as well as words), facial expressions, gestures, and overall body language.
As a listener, you must be careful not to misunderstand your client due to external factors, also called noise. Noise, when related to interpersonal communication, is anything that distorts the true message being conveyed. Noise includes using legal jargon (because it can confuse your client), inattention (from you or your client), and cultural differences.
You must also take context into consideration. This includes the physical context and the social context. Physical context includes includes where the conversation takes place. Clients may behave differently depending on the physical space they are in, such as your office versus a conference room. Social context includes the status of the person you’re speaking with (you speak to a judge differently than you speak to the file clerk in your firm), their emotions, and their expectations.
There are four principles to remember for effective interpersonal communication.
- Communication is inescapable. You must be ready to communicate with clients who are angry.
- Communication is irreversible. You can’t take back what you say, and it’s hard to clarify after the fact when speaking to a client who is upset. Keep this principle in mind before you answer.
- Communication is complicated. There are numerous signals that can affect the true message (and how you will interpret the message).
- Communication is about context. The best way to think about this principle is to think about things you could say to your best friend that you could (or would) never say to a judge or to your mother. That tells you what context is all about.
As an exercise, think about the last time you were angry. How did you act? Reflecting on your own actions and words the last time you were angry can help you spot the signs in your clients.
Providing Professional Sympathy
While you are not a therapist, it’s important to remember your clients are paying to have you on their side. If your client is angry, regardless of the reason, and they call or show up at your office, provide a professional level of sympathy. Providing appropriate sympathy will help build sthong client relationships.
It is the job of everyone in the firm to provide professional sympathy for angry clients. Make sure your entire team understands the basics of phone etiquette (not interrupting the client, making the client feel as if they were heard, repeating back information to assure the client that it’s written down correctly in a message).
Recognize When You Need to Step In
Many angry clients don’t want to talk to your staff. They want to talk to you. If they insist on speaking with you, they should be able to do that. You should be prepared to provide this type of client care. The client is most likely ticked off about something related to the case (something the other party said or did, not getting a call back from you when they thought they would, the court issuing a decision they’re not happy with).
It is often easier to soothe a client with a quick conversation immediately than to take a message. The longer the client waits to speak with you, the more heated they may become.
What matters the most is that you make your clients feel as if you really hear them. Active listening can help resolve conflict. It is exactly what it sounds like: actively listening to what your client has to say.
Active listening means you are not thinking about what you’ll say in response. It means you are not thinking about lunch. It means you are present and engaged. Forbes published a great article with 10 tips on how to be an effective listener.
Keep in mind that if you are on the phone with an angry client that tips related to engaging with the client in person clearly can’t happen. However, here are some tips you can employ when you’re on the phone with an angry client:
- Really listen to what’s being said. Don’t plan out your response. If you’re not paying attention, you might miss a key part of why the speaker is angry.
- Provide a small amount of verbal feedback. You’ll be surprised at just how far a small acknowledgement such as, “Uh-huh,” or “Okay,” can go to make someone feel heard (otherwise known as backchannel norms).
- When your client is done speaking, recap when you heard them say. This tells your client you really do understand. You could say something like, “Okay, Mr. Smith, I understand how that can be upsetting. I’d like to make sure that I fully understand. You’re upset because … .” This validates your clients’ feelings and lets them know that you really did pay attention.
In person, make sure you are displaying signs of attention. Make eye contact. Don’t work on other projects. If you’re going to take notes, let the client know so they don’t think you’re working on another project. You can also use body language such as nodding your head to show you’re listening.
Tone Is Extremely Important
Your tone matters when you are on the phone with people who are angry. Your word choice also matters. Think about the difference in tone between saying, “I’m sorry!” to someone when you mean it versus when you’re being sarcastic; same words, but different tone. Cheryl Posey, a licensed and nationally certified speech pathologist, explains how our tone is interpreted.
According to Posey, tone includes maintaining a volume that may be a bit softer or using more melody in our speech. If you do plan to practice how to sound more friendly and empathetic, make sure you don’t come off as patronizing. Sounding patronizing can take someone who’s already angry and turn them into an atom bomb.
Most importantly, the key to defusing a tense situation with an angry client is simple: make them feel like they’ve been heard.
Featured image: “portrait of a angry young man” from Shutterstock.