How to Reason with an Unreasonable Client

Your clients come to you because they have a complicated and high-stakes problem they can’t solve by themselves. They are stressed out, anxious and uncertain. This triggers primal fear responses that can make even the most reasonable person behave in unreasonable ways.

How do you reason with an unreasonable person? The truth is you can’t. But there are things you can do to help lead your client back to a place of reason so you can move your matter forward – or at least avoid further melt-down.

First, recognize that your fight, freeze, flee reflex is likely activated when you are confronted with this situation. You are going to need to engage your conscious mind to move through these primal reactions and respond effectively. It can be really difficult to do this even after years of practice and experience. A good first step is simply recognizing that this is happening to you, and giving yourself some mental space is  to get control and decide how to respond, rather than react.

Here are a few of the most effective tactics to address this situation:

  1. Listen & stay calm. The person needs to feel heard and you can’t make progress until that happens. Stay in the moment listening. Don’t be thinking about what you are going to say next, or how to get them to stop. Listen. Don’t let your anger or frustration escalate the situation.
  2. Don’t be defensive. This is a tough one, especially since your client may be frustrated with you or something they believe you did, or didn’t do. And they may be totally wrong. Arguing and being defensive in the moment doesn’t work. Trying to reason and explain while they are in crisis won’t work either. You will have the chance to set the record straight – after you’ve de-escalated the situation.
  3. Look for the hidden need. Look for the bigger picture. What is this person trying to gain? What are they trying to avoid or solve? What are they afraid of? If you can get to the root cause from their point of view you’ll have leverage to bring back reason.
  4. Respect the person. We think we know what the client is going through, but you probably don’t. Avoid judging them, assuming or creating stories in your head about their behavior. Ask good questions and treat them with dignity – the way you would want to be treated.
  5. Help them move back to solid ground. Telling someone to calm down and be quiet will make them more irate. Saying “I understand” typically doesn’t help either. Keep asking questions to understand. Help them move into a place where you can work together on solutions in the future.

Sometimes the client or the situation is just too far gone to have a hope of bringing them back to reasonableness. That’s when it’s helpful to have another perspective to help you resolve the situation in a way that best serves you, and the client.

Finally, unreasonable clients should be the exception for you – not the rule. If you are finding that unreasonable clients are the norm then there is probably something else going on that needs to be addressed. If that sounds familiar, then we should talk – because you ought to be able to have a practice working with clients who you like, who appreciate you, and who pay you what you are worth.


P.S… Do you have a difficult client situation you need to resolve? I might be able to help. Click here for a free and confidential strategy call.

Doug BrownHow to Reason with an Unreasonable Client