Ten Tips for Client Engagement
By Bill Eddy, LCSW, JD, CFLS
Clients today want to be positively engaged with their professionals and to play an important role, yet many of them tend towards negative engagement and many professionals are tempted to respond negatively as well – especially when they have “high-conflict” clients. These tips can be used with anyone to help them engage clients in thinking about problem-solving rather than reacting.
1. Accept them. This is who they are and efforts to make them a better person often create defensiveness and an unnecessary power struggle. Just focus on addressing the problems at hand.
2. Focus on the future. Talking about a client’s past behavior triggers defensiveness and resistance to change. As much as possible, it’s better to talk about desired future behavior rather than criticizing the past behavior.
3. Communicate in ways you want your client to mirror. Researchers say that we have neurons in our brains which “mirror” the behavior of others. So rather than mirroring their frustration, fear or anger, it’s better for us to act in a way that we want our clients to mirror us – especially giving them empathy and educating them, rather than showing anger.
4. Teach clients to ask you questions. Rather than making brilliant decisions for our clients, we need to engage them in asking us questions as much as possible, to help them prepare to make proposals and decisions themselves.
5. Teach clients to set the agenda. Whether you are meeting individually, in mediation, in a group meeting or otherwise, teach clients to think about and list items for the agenda. The more they are thinking about what to do, the less they are thinking about blaming and complaining.
6. Educate clients about their choices and possible consequences. This approach keeps more responsibility on their shoulders and gets them thinking. Repeatedly remind them: “It’s up to you.”
7. Have clients make lots of little decisions. Whether we are providing mediation, counseling, advocacy or judging, we need to give clients practice in making as many decisions as possible (e.g., who goes first, changing topics, when to take breaks, etc.)
8. Teach clients to make proposals. Rather than taking the lead, we need to ask clients to form proposals and test them out on their lawyers, counselors or others, to prepare positively for negotiations, rather than focusing on negative arguments about the past. This includes Who will do What, When and Where.
9. Teach clients to ask questions about each other’s proposals. Rather than quickly saying “No” to proposals, teach clients to ask questions to help them form their next proposals. This can turn an angry exchange into an analysis of what’s important to each party.
10. Teach clients to reply to proposals by saying Yes, No or I’ll think about it. This encourages clients to stay focused on thinking about proposals and making new proposals, rather than just reacting to proposals. If a client says “No” to a proposal, then it’s their turn to make a new one.