Q: I often find myself flustered when clients challenge me or are critical of me. I never seem to know what to say right at that moment. Any suggestions?
A: There are ways to deliver profoundly effective, on-the-spot responses during difficult encounters—ways that can mobilize you and restore the receptive, flexible, and empathically attuned you. I've chosen a small sample of a long list of examples that colleagues and trainees have shared with me over the years, including my own personal favorites.
You'll notice that many of the suggestions call attention to nonverbal tips and scripts. I call those "The Way to Say It," because it takes so much more than clever insights and keen conceptualizations to make a difference during challenging moments with clients. It takes awareness of how you communicate your message, the desire to explore your stumbles and falls, and the ability to attend to your inner core and mend the tattered places within you to make sense of your "hot buttons."
What's Come Over Me?
For example, when responding to a (possibly narcissistic) client who's in his angry/critical mode, the first step is to identify what part of you is getting in your way. If you're a person who has problems with anger and confrontation because of unsettled experiences from your own early years, you may find yourself shriveling in the face of anger. You press yourself deeply into the back of your chair, let your posture collapse, wring your hands, and begin to apologize for his upset, nervously making excuses and promising to try harder to make the goals and strategies of therapy clearer for him.
Don't get me wrong—it's okay to apologize and clarify points when it's warranted. But let's not forget the issue of his unacceptable tone and abusive criticalness. If fear and intimidation engulf you, and you resort to old familiar coping responses, you may lose opportunities to help the client understand the impact of his self-defeating behavioral style. The same is true if your coping tendency is to get embroiled in an argument.
To retrieve the competent you, you'll need to sit upright in your chair and enlist an internal messenger to remind you that you're not only an adult who has rights and is entitled to respect and consideration, you're also a trained professional who understands the complexities of this client. You tuck your "vulnerable self" safely away and conjure up an image of your client as a faultless child who possibly feels shameful and unlovable. You then fix your eyes gently but solidly upon him, and say slowly and clearly in level tones: "Listen, I know it's hard for you to simply ask for what you need when you feel confused or frustrated with this process. I know this comes from early experiences of being deprived and confused by the people who couldn't meet your needs, which made you feel ashamed and alone. So now, when you get upset, you feel entitled to put people in their places if you think they've let you down. But when you speak to me in those loud, cynical tones—saying mean and critical things about me and my work—it's very hard to care about you. Your approach is harsh and unacceptable, and what you end up doing is reenacting scenes from your past and producing the same outcome: loneliness.
"I'm sure this is what it's like for your wife and your colleagues who've gotten fed up with you. While I can report honestly on how it feels to be the recipient of your anger, I'm also a trained professional who understands your makeup. We might consider this an opportunity for some important work, because without the willingness on your part to communicate your needs more authentically and respectfully, you'll lose the people who matter most to you."
He'll probably buck and battle a bit more, but don't let go of the interchange until he agrees to look more deeply at his reactions and the links to his emotional themes. Don't let him off the hook. Continue to hold him accountable for his actions, set limits, and reinforce the leverage—pointing out the consequences of his behaviors—throughout the session.