When Your Client Gets In Your Face

What do you do when your client gets angry at you, upset with you, in your face?

In truth, most clients don’t actually yell at you.  But of course you can tell when they’re upset. Maybe we even project a little bit, and imagine the horrors of what they might actually be thinking, regardless of what they actually say.

It all feels pretty horrific.

Well, there’s a simple two-part way to deal with that situation.

  1. Recognize it’s about them, not about you, and
  2. Ask to talk about it.

Here’s how that plays out.

It’s About Them

When someone’s angry at you, even yelling in your face, about something you may or may not have done, it’s critical to see what’s happening.

  • What you think is happening is, “he’s angry at me.”
  • What you need to see is happening is, “he’s angry.”

If the “someone” is your three-year old child, we have no problem doing this. We think, “Oh, he’s tired,” and we have patience. What we don’t do is take seriously for a moment whatever horrible things the three-year old is saying about us.

But let’s say your child is 15; suddenly, it’s all personal, and we become offended and lash back at them. We feel attacked, and return anger for anger.

And when clients do it, it’s infinitely worse.

But – it’s still your choice. You can react as you do to a three-year old – with calmness and understanding about what’s going on with them – or with anger, getting sucked into a downward spiral.

Guess which response is right. Always remember: when someone’s angry at you, the key observation to make is that he or she is angry. It’s an emotional state in them.

The fact that they’re angry at you is relatively unimportant. You may feel hurt for a hot moment, because pain is inevitable – but suffering is a choice. Your choice.

Ask to Talk About It.

People get angry because they feel afraid about something, and are trying to be heard.

So – hear them.

Find the words to acknowledge their anger. In fact, to go further than that, and ask them to tell you more about it.

Them: I can’t believe this whole thing happened, and it’s your fault. It’s costing me money, and time, and I’m now behind schedule, and I want to know what you intend to do about it! Right now!

You: Whoah, wow. I’m not sure I appreciated how important this obviously is to you. And I get it, you’re upset – at us, and at me in particular. I, uh, think I really need to take some time and hear you out on this.

Them: I’ve been talking to you guys; I want to know what you intend to do about it.

You: Fair enough. You deserve that.  At the same time, I don’t want to hip-shoot some solution without really understanding fully your context. And obviously we haven’t done that yet. So – give me 5 minutes to really understand your perspective; I promise to listen, and to talk about action steps – in 5 minutes.  Now please – talk to me.

Or words to that effect. Nobody can script for you exactly what to say – that’s a function of who you are, and who your client is. But the point is to acknowledge the anger, and commit to listening.

And by the way, this doesn’t mean you need to be all passive and apologetic. You can, and should, push back on the insistence on immediate action. It can wait 5 more minutes, and the truth is until you really have listened to your client’s outbursts, he or she is not going to listen to your solutions.

Remember: It’s not about you. And until you talk about it, they’re not going to accept your solutions.


An Open Letter to Timothy Ryan, PwC’s US Chairman Re: Oscars and Trust

Mr. Ryan,

Some days as Chairman must be fun. Others, like the Oscars the other night – not so much.

I recognize you, in fact, know a lot about trust.  There are probably particular circumstances that make the Oscar boo-boo a unique event. You may also have taken some steps like those I suggest below.

But this is such a teachable moment for the area of trust recovery that I hope you’ll forgive my suggesting Three Steps that someone in your position should consider – on principle – taking.


Step One. Offer to resign the Academy account. Do so unreservedly and genuinely.

  • If they accept your resignation (they probably won’t), it looks better than being fired; and hey, it did happen.
  • If they reject your resignation, you will look gracious. (And why should they let you resign – look at all they just invested in training you!)

Step Two. Tell the Academy precisely what went wrong, and precisely what you’re going to do to ensure nothing of that type, flavor or category will ever happen again.

  • Then fund somebody to start writing a paper on what implications this event has for improving audit industry practices at large.

Step Three. If anyone dares to suggest firing the poor gentleman at the heart of this most unfortunate event, tell them what the Academy will hopefully tell you: “Why would we ever let go someone in whom we just invested so much in training?” He just became one of your most valuable future cautionary story-tellers.

One of the many paradoxes about trust is that trust recovered can often end up stronger than trust unchallenged.

I’m rooting for you.





How to Recover from Trust Lost: Part II

Two days ago I wrote in Part I how trust is not necessarily as slow to be gained, or as quick to be lost, as we think.  Part 2 is about how you recover lost trust.

Sometimes trust recovery is confused with reputation management; or with apologies; or with legal maneuvers. Any or of all of those may be appropriate in a given case, but only one is critical to all—acknowledgment.

At root, trust betrayal is a fundamental lie about intentions. When umpire Jim Joyce made a bad call to rob Andre Gallaraga of a perfect game, he told an “untruth,” but his act was clearly out of sync with his intentions. It is not hard to clarify intentions, if they were in fact clean all along.

By contrast, when a preacher or politician fulminates against moral turpitude and is then caught in a compromising position with a prostitute, he has lied about his intentions. In his case, the fact proves his bad intentions. 

In the first case, acknowledgement means stating exactly what happened, and taking full responsibility. Umpire Joyce saw the replay, and immediately stated he was wrong. Of the opposing players, he said, “I don’t blame them a bit, I would’ve said it myself.” He went directly to Galarraga to acknowledge and apologize. 

In Joyce’s case, an apology was clearly warranted. That’s not always the case; it may not be appropriate to apologize for something someone else did (unless in a the chain of command); it can come off as insincere, or patronizing. But what is required—always—is a full acknowledgement of precisely what happened, and a statement of accountability where that is clear.

The same rule applies in the case of an errant preacher or politician, or to BP for that matter regarding the oil spill. Leaving aside apologies and reparations, what is absolutely necessary for trust recovery is a full accounting of what happened, and to the best of one’s ability, why. 

Until our motives are re-aligned with our actions, we are stuck in a state of un-trust. Acknowledgement is what re-establishes the linkage. 

Name It and Claim It: The Language of Trust Recovery

The reason trust recovery is hard is that it requires soul-searching of our motives. We hate to admit we might have had bad motives, that  and: that we acted from bad faith. Yet that is what is required.

If you name it, you can claim it. What I mean by that simple phrase is that acknowledging the truth (“naming it”) is a necessary condition for recovering trust (“claiming it”).

There is a simple grammatical rule for successfully doing Name It and Claim It, and it looks like this:

List as many caveats as are necessary to slightly overcompensate for what you’re about to say—then say it.

Caveats, in this case, are made up the things both of you are afraid to say.

Let’s take a simple example first, then build up to the situation facing Joseph and Suzanne (see Part 1). (More examples can be found in another article, A Tool for Emotional Risk Management—Name It and Claim It.

Let’s say you are going to mention price for the first time in a sales meeting, and you’re a little nervous about it: You might say:

“I realize this is a little early to talk price, we haven’t mentioned value yet, and you haven’t asked about it, but in my experience sometimes one of us might feel embarrassed if it turned out later that our expectations were mis-aligned; so at the risk of putting something out there, I’m thinking this is a low 6-digit project. Does that feel wildly at odds with what you were thinking? Are we off by an order of magnitude?”

What you have done in such a case is to state all your inner fears (and the client’s too) out loud, in a way that recognizes each of you feel a little risky here, together. The effect, oddly, is to neutralize the risk. Because having said these words, the worst thing the client will do is say, ‘Well, that is a little embarrassing, and we didn’t ask about it, and I don’t want to tip our hand just now by talking about it, so, no thanks.” That may feel harsh, but it’s far better than not saying anything, and finding out two meetings later that one of you was thinking one million and the other 75,000. 

It’s also rare; almost always, the other person is grateful for the mention. The much more likely response is, “Well, glad you mentioned that actually, it takes a bit of pressure off. And we’re not conceding anything, but yes, I think we’re in a range where we can comfortably keep talking. Thanks for making sure.”

What Name It and Claim It does is to take a risky situation and not only defuse it, but actually create trust by doing so. Because the shared experience of taking a risk creates a track record of trust. The next risky overture will be more welcomed because of the risk taken in the first instance.

Name It and Claim It and Trust Recovery

What would it sound like for Joseph and Suzanne to use Name It and Claim It to recover trust in their respective situations (see beginning of case)?

Joseph can set up a conversation with a key client individual in his client organization; probably off-line, one-on-one, after-hours, over drinks or a meal. Not too far into the conversation, Joseph might say something like this:

Look, Bob, I appreciate your coming to dinner tonight; you might have guessed I had something specific to talk about. I feel a little risky raising a delicate issue with you, an issue that has some history, and I suspect it’s not all comfortable for you either.

I want talk about what happened between my predecessor Bill and your organization. I don’t fully know what happened, and if you wouldn’t mind, I’d really like to. I have no axe to grind, no horse in this race; I have no requests, hopes or expectations; I look for no promises. I simply want to fully understand where you are coming from, from your perspective alone. 

I fear that if I don’t understand that, then we’ll never have a basis for working together again. I apologize in advance for any discomfort this causes you, and hope you will see my intent simply to learn. Maybe we can’t put this behind this, but maybe we can; I would feel remiss if I didn’t try.   

Suzanne’s is a different case; in her situation, mistakes were made, and made by her organization and by her. She might say:

Melinda, thanks for taking this meeting. I realize it’s the first time in 18 months, and our last interactions weren’t happy. I’m not sure if you had resistance to even having this meeting, or whether you even felt comfortable telling people we were meeting.

I want to acknowledge the difficulty in our relationship 18 months ago, and my role in it. In retrospect, I was focused on assessing blame, rather than on focusing your needs as my client. The more time passes, the more I realize what a fundamental error in perspective that was. 

It may not be easy for you to talk about without emotion—I’m not sure I could do so easily—but I would respectfully like to ask you to do so. I cannot fully say that I have understood your situation until I hear it from you. And I know that I can’t move along myself unless I feel I’ve understood things.

I’m not looking for re-admission here; that’s up to you. What I need to do regardless is to fully understand what things looked like from your perspective 18 months ago. Would you be willing to take some time with me now to fully understand our history?  

Sometimes Trust Recovery is Beyond Language

A firm like BP that has incurred numerous safety violations is not going to recover trust until it convinces others that it has changed its ways. That means processes, procedures, standards, incentives, vocabulary and culture. Yet the role of acknowledgement still stands at center. Employees will not believe their own leadership if leadership does not stand and speak the new truth to the public. 

Some companies fear that if they change, but don’t advertise the fact, then they will lose “credit” in the public’s mind. Thinking this way re-invites the same risky behavior that got them in trouble in the first place.   The risk of being seen as good while doing not-so-good is far greater than the risk of doing good and being seeing as doing not-so-good. Time will take care of the second strategy, but events will undermine the first. 

And twice-fallen, trust recovery is far more than twice as hard.

How To Recover from Trust Lost: Part I

Joseph says:

“When I took this account over 10 months ago, I didn’t understand why the client seemed so distant. We had been cut back 2 years ago and never really recovered; I figured I could turn it around.

“Come to find out, the reason was bad blood between my predecessor and the client organization. No one really talked about it; but there it was. So now what? How can I recover trust lost?”

Suzanne says:

“We made some mistakes. They weren’t critical, but we were partly at fault. We tried to show the client had a lot to do with it too—refusing to take accountability for changes in specs, delayed decisions, contradictory information—but it just made things worse. When the renewal finally came up, we didn’t get it. Surprise. That was 18 months ago. I don’t know when we can go back.”

If you recognize a little of your situation in Joe’s or Suzanne’s, then you’ve wondered about trust recovery.

If trust is lost, can you ever get it back? Or are you doomed to just slink away in defeat?

In this first part, I’ll describe how trust gets lost.  In the second part, two days from now, I’ll describe the key to getting it back.

Trust: a Long Time to Build, a Moment to Destroy? NOT

You’ve heard the usual platitude: trust takes a long time to establish, but only a moment to destroy. In truth, that’s a mis-statement; two mis-statements, actually.

First, trust does not necessarily take a long time to create.  We form strong impressions of trustworthiness of others in nano-seconds, based on all kinds of information and biases.

Second, trust isn’t necessarily destroyed in an instant; it took nearly a decade to destroy trust in Bernie Madoff–and he was a mega-crook!

The better formulation is this: shallow trust can be destroyed quickly; deep trust takes a long time to die.  Basically, what determines the time it takes to destroy trust is a function of quality–not of time itself.

How Trust Gets Lost

There are two ways in which trust gets lost.  The first is an illusion.

Suppose your ‘trust’ consists simply of the absence of mistrust.  Perhaps it even consists of untrustworthy practices garbed in clever PR, good advertising and an aggressive marketing campaign that provides the appearance of trust.. If suddenly the curtain is drawn back and the public sees the ugly reality behind the machine, it may appear trust was lost. But all that was really lost was the fig-leaf of appearance.

This was what happened to BP, whose safety record was obscured by a green advertising campaign until its comparative record was revealed by a horrible accident. This was Eliot Spitzer’s story too, when he lost the governorship of New York by using public money to secure prostitutes, while proselytizing against them. He didn’t lose trust–he lost plausible deniability.  The trust was gone long ago.

To recover from this kind of trust is possible, but it amounts to undergoing a conversion. The untrustworthy party cannot insist it was an accident—because it was the exact opposite of an accident. This kind of trust ‘loss’ is as good as planned.  Trust recovery here requires massive underlying change.

The second case is easier. Consider umpire Jim Joyce, who egregiously blew a call that cost a young pitcher the ultimate rare honor of a perfect game.

“It was the biggest call of my career, and I kicked the [stuff] out of it,” Joyce said, looking and sounding distraught as he paced in the umpires’ locker room. “I just cost that kid a perfect game.”

Did he recover trust? Before the very next day, Joyce had recovered the trust of the fans, the opposing team’s manager, and even pitcher Andre Galarraga. Note the error was egregious; and the recovery of trust took less than 24 hours.

These examples point out a few myths that need addressing:

1.    Trust recovery doesn’t necessarily take time

2.    Trust recovery is not (solely) a communications job


Read Part II: the How To part of trust recovery–acknowledgment.

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