Take a Deep Breath: Five Tips For Dealing With Highly Emotional Clients

By Kelly E. Thompson

Effectively dealing with highly emotional clients can be one of the most difficult aspects of practicing family law. Emotional clients may find it difficult to make rational decisions about their case, causing them to become entrenched in untenable positions. Emotional clients may also be challenging to communicate with effectively, sometimes hearing what they want to hear as opposed to what you are truly saying. Even worse, highly emotional clients may lash out against us or our staff when their anger actually comes from the circumstances they find themselves in, not our representation of them in those circumstances. Because representing highly emotional clients is a nearly unavoidable hazard in our profession, we must all find a way to reach past those emotions to help our clients make sound decisions about their case and future. When dealing with highly emotional clients, keep the following in mind:

1. Be aware of your client’s emotional state.

The first step in effectively dealing with highly emotional clients is to identify them. It may seem obvious who is emotional and who is not. However, we all deal with emotions in different ways and family law attorneys have more opportunity than most to experience the entire gambit of possibilities. In any given week, we may have clients, or even the same client, who experience grief, anger, fear, or a complicated combination thereof. It is easiest to identify highly emotional clients when they are obviously emotional. This may take the form of tears or statements evidencing their anger or bitterness about the situation (or their ex). In other cases, however, clients may react to powerful emotions by avoiding communications with you or taking unreasonable positions in a misguided attempt to control a situation that has moved beyond their control. These clients may never cry or make statements that automatically indicate how emotional they are, but that does not make them less emotional than their counterparts. In fact, these clients are the ones most likely to be labeled as a difficult person as opposed to a client who is understandably having a hard time. The next time you find yourself with a “difficult” client, consider whether this is a person acting from emotion as opposed to a person with a chronic personality disorder. If this is a determination beyond your abilities (and rightly so since we are attorneys not psychologists), enlist the aid of a therapist in making that determination. Which brings us to the next suggestion …

2. Enlist the aid of a therapist.

In our practice, we refer nearly every client to therapy. Unless, that is, they are already in therapy, in which case we congratulate them on the wise decision they have already made. A good therapist cannot only help clients survive the divorce process, they can also help them learn to be better parents, deal with strong emotions in a positive way, and make solid plans for their future. This is particularly helpful for highly emotional clients. If your client is willing to sign a release to allow the therapist to talk with you, the therapist may also become a valuable ally in giving you suggestions regarding the best way to communicate with your client and insight into what your client is thinking and feeling. This can make all the difference in effectively dealing with highly emotional clients.

3. Understand your client’s goals and values.

The first time you meet with your client, identify the client’s goals and values in the case. Not only can this identification help you recognize highly emotional clients, it can also be very helpful in effectively moving the case forward, especially when the client is highly emotional. When identifying your client’s goals and values, be sure to understand the difference. A goal is the result the client desires. For example, your client may report they want sole custody of their children. A value, on the other hand, is the motivating factor behind the desired goal. Your client may want sole custody because she fears for her children’s safety. In this case, the client’s value is the safety of her children and her fears for their safety may contribute to the emotions she is experiencing. In many cases you may find a client’s goals are not realistic. However, if we understand the values motivating our clients toward those unrealistic goals, we may be able to identify alternative ways to more realistically support the client’s values. In the case of the client who is genuinely concerned for the safety of her children, identify the source of the client’s fear. Does she believe her spouse suffers from an untreated mental illness that could endanger the children in his care? If so, request a psychological evaluation. A psychological evaluation that returns no concerns may help allay your client’s fears, while a psychological evaluation with concerning findings may bolster her claim for primary, if not sole, custody of the children. Under either scenario, the outcome may possibly alleviate some of the emotions your client is experiencing and help them to move past unrealistic goals. At a minimum, it will ensure your client knows you hear her concerns and take them seriously.

4. Speak your client’s language.

Practice active listening with your highly emotional clients. When your client tells you the story of discovering his wife’s affair for the third time, most likely he is repeating the story because it is important to him that you understand the pain he is experiencing. Despite the impatience you may feel at the third retelling, listen carefully to the client and validate the feelings he is sharing with you by telling him exactly what it is you hear him saying. If at all possible, and appropriate, use similar language, gestures and emotions repeating these points back to him. This will greatly increase the likelihood your client will feel understood and valued by you. It also makes it more likely he will not repeat the story for a fourth time and he may be more ready to listen to the sound advice you are prepared to offer.

5. Remember, all cases are different (and the same).

At any given time we may be dealing with 20-40 different clients, all in various stages of divorce, custody disputes, or other family tragedies. Day in and day out we are bombarded with the sadness, fear, and anger our clients are experiencing. Over time, we develop a thick skin and you may start to see recurring themes that add to the sense that few cases are truly unique. By the time you handle your 99th case, you most likely find you are less personally impacted than you were by the first case you handled. In some ways this is a natural progression—and even a necessity—for survival. After all, no one would last long in the practice of family law if we allowed ourselves to be personally affected by each and every emotion our clients face. As a result of this progression, however, we may also find ourselves more impatient, particularly when dealing with highly emotional clients. After all, we have seen many cases, some of them more tragic, but handled with far more grace (in our jaded opinions, of course). When you find yourself with these thoughts, take a moment to reflect on your client’s situation. Never forget, this is not your client’s 99th divorce (most likely), nor do they have the luxury of dealing with the experience at arm’s length. They may be grieving the loss of their marriage, concerned about the welfare of their children, and scrambling to find a way to live, all the while finding money for your fees. For our clients, particularly those highly emotional clients, their case is absolutely unique to them and we cannot allow ourselves to forget that. As experienced family law attorneys, however, we must also remember that each case is precisely like all the others in that each client is entitled to our patience, respect and empathy regardless of the intensity of the emotions that may drive a particular client.

Effectively dealing with highly emotional clients can be challenging and, in some cases, we may never find a way through those emotions to help our clients make sound decisions about their case and future. In other cases, we have the privilege of not only watching, but sometimes in assisting, our clients move beyond the anger and pain they initially experienced to find exciting new lives that are more fulfilling than they could have previously imagined. These are the clients we will remember long after we close our final case. When all else fails and you find your patience with a highly emotional client wearing thin, remind yourself this could be the next client you will never forget. Then, take a deep breath, count to 10, and refer to numbers one through five above.

Kelly E. Thompson is an attorney at the firm of Triangle Divorce Lawyers in Raleigh. She is a certified Family Financial Mediator.