What makes a client difficult is not who they are at their core but how they have been treated in their close relationships. Client-centered communication is a way to help your clients feel heard and understood, in hopes of making them collaborators in the legal process as opposed to hindrances.
By Gregory Gilston, Family Lawyer
Every client wants to be heard. Every client wants to feel understood. Seems simple, right? But when you commence work with a client who will not listen to you, or with a client whose experiences you cannot understand or relate to, that is where the miscommunication may begin to occur. Do not let it!
As experienced professionals, we can agree that family law is all about communication. Clients often end up in our offices because effective communication is missing from their own interpersonal relationships, including those relationships with their current or former spouse, as well as their children.
As the professionals in the budding attorney-client relationship, it is our job to facilitate and model effective communication with our clients. The interesting thing about this call to action is that we can only facilitate effective communication if the client provides us with an accurate account of what is going on in their life and in their relationships.
Client-Centered Communication: Helping Your Clients Feel Heard
Ultimately, many clients fail to tell the whole story. Some tell the wrong story. Whether their egos get in the way, their trauma prevents them from sharing in detail, or they are just unaware of what is going on in their interpersonal relationships, these clients often fail to divulge important information – information that will help the case move forward.
Enter client-centered communication. Client-centered communication is a method of helping the client feel heard and understood, in hopes of helping them become collaborators in the legal process, as opposed to hindrances. The goal of this communication style is two-fold; first, we must validate the client’s experiences, and second, we must help the client rationalize and make sense of those experiences.
As skilled professionals, it is our duty to extract important information from our clients – not only for the purpose of building their case but also for the purpose of gaining insight into their communication style. This, however, is often easier said than done.
Difficult Clients Result from How They Were Treated in Close Relationships
It is important to realize that what makes a client difficult is not who they are at their core, but how they have been treated in their close relationships. If the client has been allowed to steamroll their spouse, they will try to steamroll you. If the client has spoiled their children, they will often give you the answer they think you want, and not the answers you actually need. If the client has enabled the poor behavior of their significant other, they will make excuses for the other party throughout the legal process.
And if the client has been enabled by their significant other throughout the relationship, they will constantly make excuses for themselves. Though these behaviors can ultimately obstruct progress in the legal process, they can be indicative of a larger issue that lends itself to your client’s role in the legal dispute at play.
Ultimately, when a client believes that their truth is too complex to fully share – whether consciously or unconsciously – that is when the client will become difficult. When you see a client holding back, that is when you, as the professional must intervene by validating and then rationalizing your client’s truth. Make them feel heard. Make them feel understood. This is different than allowing them to feel justified by their actions. Even if a client knows that their approach is wrong, that client deserves to feel as if their version of their story matters. After all, they did live through it all.
By helping your client validate and rationalize their experiences throughout the legal process, your client’s communication style will transform, making them less difficult as the attorney-client relationship progresses.
For your client to truly understand their own communication style, it is imperative that they dig deep into themselves and understand – on a personal level – what caused them to end up in your office in the first place. If we, as the attorneys, can better understand our client’s communication style, then we will be more equipped to help the client transform, not only within the attorney-client relationship but in their other close relationships as well.
While this may be a tall order, the work you put in as a counselor assisting your client with their introspective journey into their existing communication style will yield tremendous results at the back end of your attorney-client relationship, if approached strategically. This process is continuous, and therefore fluid. But ultimately, by helping your client validate and rationalize their experiences throughout the legal process, your client’s communication style will transform, making them less difficult as the attorney-client relationship progresses.
Who knows? Maybe those clients who came into your office as the most resistant and/or dependent may eventually become your most engaged and/or self-sufficient.
Gregory Gilston, an associate attorney with the Montgomery County, Pennsylvania law firm of Vetrano | Vetrano & Feinman LLC, focuses his legal practice on complex divorce and other domestic relations matters. He hopes to revolutionize the field of family law by facilitating healthy communication amongst family members who find themselves on opposite sides of the legal process. www.vetranolaw.com
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