My Client is a Jerk: Three Keys to Transforming Relationships Gone Bad

(Following is an abridged and partial version of my latest article just published at

Have you ever had a really difficult client?

• Who won’t take the time up front to share critical information
• Who just cannot make a decision,
• Who is frozen by politics or fear or ignorance,
• Who argues, rejects, and is disrespectful.

There is a common thread to all of these cases, which—if we understand it—can help us succeed.

The common thread has nothing to do with the clients.

The common thread is us.

The Client Situation

Let’s get some perspective—about our clients, and about ourselves.

We’ve all said, if only in our heads, "My client is a jerk." Unfortunately, "my client is a jerk" is a terrible problem statement. For starters, clients don’t usually buy into it.

People successful enough to hire us typically have achieved some degree of success in life. While it’s popular lately to describe the prevalence of "a**holes" in business (see Robert I. Sutton’s book, The No A**hole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t), their frequency is overestimated.
Most clients have spouses, or parents, or siblings capable of loving them. Most have a boss who has promoted them.

Truly bad behavior, more often than not, comes from decent people who are stressed out. If someone is behaving badly, it’s a good bet that they are afraid.
Identify the fear, and you can find a real problem statement.

Manage to talk about that fear with your client, and you can create a lasting bond.

Our Own Situation

What’s true of clients is equally true for us, especially in selling. We fear not getting the sale.

We’re afraid of our boss, peers, loved ones and clients judging us.

But we carry the ultimate judges around in our own heads. We allow ourselves to be hijacked by our own ideas of being "good enough.” There’s a thin line between having high standards and beating up on oneself.

If we act from fears, we will run from judgment—usually by blaming others. “This sale was doomed because I had a difficult client. If you’d had my client, you would have failed too. My client is a jerk.”

At first blame, people will commiserate with you. But when blame turns into resentment, people move away. Misery may love company, but company doesn’t return the favor.

Blaming a client never got you the sale, and it never will. But it can kill the next one.

Self-Diagnosing and Fixes

For more on diagnosing the problem (and examples of reframing it), and for three fixes for difficult clients situations, read the rest of the article at

There aren’t any difficult clients. Not really. There are only relationships that aren’t working well. And nearly all of those can be fixed. But it must start with us.

As Phil McGee says, "Blame is captivity; responsibility is freedom." To get free of "difficult clients," take responsibility for fixing the relationships.

14 replies
  1. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    You write, "There aren’t any difficult clients. Not really. There are only relationships that aren’t working well. And nearly all of those can be fixed. But it must start with us."

    For me, the crux of failed relationships is that there is no "we" there. I/you; you/me; but no "we."

    One of the obstacles to "we" is the void of friendship. Acquaintanceship, perhaps, but no friendship. Without friendship, the space between the two is cold, uninviting, uncomfortable, and "mental". Without friendship, there’s no tacit invitation to share openly and honestly, to be curious about the relationship, to communicate, to connect from a deeper, heart-felt place…no intimacy, no vulnerability, no real, honest openness.

    The question, as you point to it, is what’s keeping me from the friendship, from moving into the space between us, from being open and vulnerable, from feeling safe?

    In other words, for me, "What’s right about being distant, about allowing my fear to keep me separate from you, from not connecting at a deeper level?"

    The fear you point to cannot be addressed when a relationship is not wrapped in friendship. "Business as usual", completely "mental" with perhaps a soupcon of fake or phony connection won’t do it. Both sense the (unspoken) discomfort in that space in-between.

    So, here the question is, "What’s right about not cultivating a real, open and honest authentic, and deep friendship with that other."

    The response, reflected upon and processed consciously, can lead to a "business unusual" connection that allows for the type of transformed relationship you speak of.



  2. Ford Harding
    Ford Harding says:


    What you say has much truth, but come now, there are trully difficult people out there. It takes two to make a relationship work, but one can destroy it. Just ask someone who must do business regularly with a drug adict.

    A client of mine is a bully and probably always was. He recently threwhis cel phone at a friend of mine in a tantrum. This man is 6′ 1" and is aware of how he can intimidate others. Maybe there is a scared puppy down inside him somewhere. But he acts out with many people, so no one of them can be blamed for causing to his bad behavior.

    Ford Harding

  3. Andrea Howe
    Andrea Howe says:

    To Ford’s comment:  I believe we teach people how to treat us.  I wonder how many of those being bullied by the client you mention have actually stood up to the guy.   To that end, we can indeed all be "blamed" (or, more accurately, take responsibility) for all of the bullies in our lives.

  4. Ford Harding
    Ford Harding says:


    You are right to a point.  Some have stood up to him, including my friend. I don’t believe any of them are with the firm, anymore. Others don’t, fearing the loss of a job and not being able to replace it.  That’s a realistic fear for older workers.  It’s hard to judge them too harshly for not fighting back

  5. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:

    But Andrea’s point still holds.  If people don’t stand up to bullies, regardless of how reasonable their fears may appear to them and to us, they still get back what they c0-dependently encouraged–a bully.  It’s not about judging them, it’s about stating a fact of life.

    But let me raise the ante.  If he is your client, you probably have some influence over him–positively or negatively.  As do all of us when we find ourselves in Ford’s position.  What can be done not only by the jerk/bully’s victims, but by those of us who are outside it and can see what is happening?

  6. Ford Harding
    Ford Harding says:

    Charlie and Andrea:

    My relationship with the man is excellent. He has always been gracious and generous to me and has never acted out in my presence. When his patience began to fray in workshops with his people I asked him to leave and he always complied.

    My friend with the cel phone implanted in his brow was brought in on my recommendation and was working with the man to change his behavior. It obviously didn’t work.

    Must I now suit myself in armour and go to the lists with this man–and then with every other person I know whose behavior I find objectionable in some way. Come now! Do either of you two (or anyone else) meet this standard? (I recommend Trollop’s "The Last Chronicle of Barchester" as a fiction exploration of what would happen if you tried.)


  7. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:

    Ford, I’m not sure what point you’re arguing.

    Andrea and Ian can speak for themselves, but I for one completely accept your statement that your client "is a bully and probably always was." Further, I completely accept your statement that the people against whom he acts out cannot be "blamed" for his actions.

    As a consultant facing that situation, I would say the only relevant question worth discussing is–what is to be done by those who are affected? All else is mere gossip.

    If he doesn’t bother you personally and you don’t mind that he bothers others, then that is fully your choice–case closed. If others choose to allow him his abuse rather than risk retribution, then that is their choice– case closed. There’s no moral claim that you or others "ought" to do anything beyond what you want to.

    Bu–I would say that if no one is upset enough to act, then discussion is mere gossip.

    There’s no "standard" here, no one is suggesting you do anything you don’t want to do. You don’t "have to" do any thing, period. Like you, I don’t bother to confront everyone who annoys me; I figure I’m better off working to not be annoyed.

    But–if you or someone else actually is moved to act, then it’s worthwhile talking about how to act. I’d refer readers to my post of a few weeks ago on hostage negotiators (see

    Professional hostage negotiators manage a 95% success rate in talking homicidal armed hostage-takers out of doing what they’ve threatened to do. My point is simply to note the possibilty of success when dealing with extreme emotional situations.

    Your client may, of course, lie in the 5% of people more loony than an armed terrorist. And if you think he is, I have no standing to tell you otherwise. You and only you can be the judge of whether this person is outside the purview of anyone’s ability to influence. If so, case closed.

    However, if he’s at least as approachable as 95% of hostage-takers, then it’s worth considering how one approaches him, rather than continuing to cite how "bad" he is or the volume of "bad" people in the world.

    There are many bullies. Too many to tackle all. We all have to make choices. If you choose not to deal with him, no one’s arguing with you; I don’t hear anyone advocating principled challenging of all bullies. It’s your choice. The choicees are:

    1. do you approach him and if so, how; or

    2. do you not approach him, in which case all else is idle gossip by all of us.

    Again, I’m not sure what point you’re protesting.

    By the way: I consider this a really interesting and useful blog conversation. We are all faced with challenging people all the time, and I find it’s helpful to hear others voice the arguments rather than audit the itty-bitty-shitty-committee blogging that’s ongoing all the time in my head.

  8. Ian Welsh
    Ian Welsh says:

    Actually, I’m of the 10% of people are just jerks, 10% are innately good, and 80% of people are somewhere in between school.

    For the 80% of those inbetween, what you get from them is usually more or less what you give to them.

    What is true, I think, is that if you’re finding that a lot of your relationships (of any variety – work, romantic, family)  are bad, then there’s probably something you can do about it, because it’s probably not /just/ the other person.

    On the other hand, I do believe that some people are some incorrigible you can’t really ever trust them.  But I believe the number of such people is rather low.

  9. Doug Matthews
    Doug Matthews says:

    "visiting your blog for the first time, I stumbled into the conversation on difficult people.

    Unfortunately, I can’t think of an example, but I suggest that the most effective way of dealing with difficult people is the good old Socratic method.

    It’s hard and demands inspired presence of mind, but if youcan formulate a question thatmakes it difficult for them to answer without exposing the problems with whatever position they are asserting, it has the best chance of shutting them up. Of course, it could result in their launching cell phones, but that seems to be a risk anyway

  10. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:

    Thanks Doug, the Socratic method worked pretty darn well for Socrates (except for the hemlock part).  Well, it worked for his students, anyway, and continues to do so.  Thanks for the suggestion.  Hope you come back to make more.

  11. Umendra Singh
    Umendra Singh says:

    A relationship, I think, is like a shark, you know? It has to constantly move forward or it dies. Most people hope and dream for a happy marriage/relationship, but these dreams are difficult to achieve.


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