How to Deal with a Crying Client

Clients cry in our offices. It’s pretty common. Some cry a little; some cry continuously. Some can talk while crying, while some just completely shut down and lose it.

What do you do?

First off, be sure you have a box of tissues on the table. We’ve got a checklist for refreshing our conference and meeting rooms, and tissues are the number one item on the list. Make sure the tissue box is ready to go.

Second, acknowledge the upset. Tell the client that you know that these are difficult issues. Be sure you say it, even if it’s obvious, because people need you to articulate that you understand what’s happening.

Third, tell the client that crying is normal. Tell the client that many clients sit in the same chair and cry. Let the client know that this behavior is reasonable. The client needs to hear that he or she isn’t especially odd.

Finally, get on with it. The client came for help and needs to get it regardless of how difficult it is to talk about these issues. Push on and keep going. Ask your questions, tell the client what he or she needs to hear, and keep moving forward.

As you roll along, some will stop crying: they’ll get caught up in the discussion, and the tears will dry up. Some will just keep crying, and tears will stream down throughout the whole meeting. Don’t worry about it. If your client is participating, then he or she is benefiting from the meeting. Don’t worry about the tears: some people just come with lots of tears.

On occasion, the very rare occasion, you will have a client who just can’t engage with you. The sobbing will take over. The breathing will be labored, and the client simply can’t pay attention. In that instance, and I can count on one hand the number of times that has happened to me, you’ve got to cancel the meeting. Give it ten or fifteen minutes and then call it off. Be firm about canceling. Tell the client you’ll call to reschedule and wrap it up. If you stick around, the sobbing will only continue. At some point, you’ve got to call the meeting off if it’s clear that nothing productive is going to happen.

With the uncontrollably sobbing client, some will suggest that you take a break and resume in a few minutes. In my experience, that doesn’t work. You’ll take the break and come back, and the sobbing will resume right where it left off. These clients need more than a few minutes.

When a client is clearly in distress and can’t regain control, it’s important to suggest counseling. While crying is normal, there is a level of distress that isn’t healthy. Those folks need to be seeing an expert to assist them in working through the process. Make a referral so they can get the help they need.

Crying clients are a normal part of practicing family law. At some point, you’ll get used to meeting with people streaming tears. In the meantime, it’s helpful to have a plan for helping these clients get through the meeting and obtain the value they’re seeking. It’s never easy, but it’s part of the job.

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