If you want to create a culture that is conducive to dealing with difficult and demanding people, your frontline and legal professionals must be able to deal with stressful situations with the confidence that they can manage emotionally charged and challenging behaviours, while effectively directing the communication and required outcomes. This is excellence in customer service.

Does your staff have the skills to manage these stressful relationships?

Legal firms face significant challenges in customer relationships with clients. Clients generally first make contact in really stressful situations, often with unrealistic expectations about services, let alone the information required, the process and limits to services. Or perhaps they have a defensive attitude that can become adversarial in itself.

Here are two views from my Consulting Room:

Scene 1: Lou and the Cast of Incompetents

Lou is pacing in my consulting room, agitated and talking rapidly about his recent frustrating appointment with his lawyer. “The lawyer has provided advice that is outrageous” says Lou, “he won’t be following it”. Lou has sprung out of his seat, repeating that “…this all has to stop now, I can’t take any more! It’s all working against me, they don’t understand how vulnerable I am…” Lou experiences anxiety and struggles to stay focused on conversations.

Speaking quietly but firmly I get him to sit down. Lou has three concurrent legal matters – a public liability injury compensation case, a WorkCover matter and another matter pending with a government department. And he has a dispute with another service provider that he receives support services from.

To add to this, Lou is offended by slow responses to his email enquiries from someone else. This is further ‘proof’ of the battles he faces with cold-hearted, ineffectual authorities, who are all blocking his progress.

I speak slowly, repetitively, patiently. I ask Lou to slow down. It’s hard work because Lou goes on an emotional rollercoaster ride for over half the session, and I am the anchor that reminds him to calm down.

Lou is all about relationships and takes everything personally. He begins by describing all parties on a first name basis. It’s a sizable and confusing cast of incompetents he is battling with. He is struggling in most of the interactions with the agencies he is trying to negotiate with. Lou contradicts himself often, then is easily exasperated. He takes offence easily and alternates between demands and anxious despair.

I work with Lou to stay on track, set clear directions, guide him back towards the purpose of our conversation. And I work with him to decide what actions Lou can plan to take next and list the different potential outcomes, including frustrations, so that he has a tool for each possibility. Lou leaves happier. But this scene is likely to be repeated next session.

‘I feel for his lawyer because I suspect that without skills and training, managing Lou’s predictable mid-consult anxiety attacks would be an overwhelming experience!’

Scene 2: Not happy Jan!

Jan pushes past me into my office, impatient that I’m running 5 minutes late – (I am often 5 minutes late because I work hard with each client and yes, I could probably improve my time management).

Jan is irritated and sits upright, unimpressed. She needs help urgently because she’s not coping. She launches into her describing her current problems before I can even sit down.

No one is helping her. Her legal settlement issues are too complex and drawn out. She just wants this matter finalised! It’s a difficult case because Jan says her estranged husband is manipulating the situation and he is deliberately frustrating her financially. Jan’s lawyer has referred her to me.

Jan’s irritability is palpable and present at every session. The focus of the irritation changes, but not her emotions behind it. Although she is relatively wealthy, Jan worries about money. She’s travelled this year extensively, but didn’t really enjoy it. Jan says she finds most people frustrating, there’s nothing really to talk about. She tells me she doesn’t make friends. No one is really trustworthy. She doesn’t like her family, who should be more sympathetic. Nothing is working out.

I can hear how she wants to spend time with her family, but she then says she finds them annoying, she feels used and then just wants them gone. There is a lot of blame-speak in Jan’s descriptions, weighted with observations of everyone’s faults. She has little insight into how her actions may have contributed to a particular conflict she is describing. She wants me to see the escalating text messages she sends after an argument, but doesn’t concede that these might fuel the relationship breakdown she is worried about. She just needs to process her emotions she says, and others need to know how she is feeling. She really struggles to see another person’s point of view.

Jan wants me to tell her what to do now, but battles my suggestions in her particular way. When we explore options, Jan focuses on obstacles and is pessimistic about outcomes, repeating other’s faults. Her descriptions of situations are definitive and peppered with words such as ‘always’, ‘never’, ‘nothing’. She becomes defensive easily when I suggest she needs to take initiative.

I can imagine the challenges her lawyer faces in exploring options and decision making with Jan. My guess is she will vacillate between ‘rescue me, irritation that she has to make decisions, blame that they are not doing enough to solve the situation, and they charge too much anyway’.  Why – because she’s told me this already