When a friend shows us pictures of a party we attended, we are probably most interested in the pictures that include us. That’s normal. We all want to be involved in the stories that our friends tell because we want to be important in their lives. We also want to be important in our clients’ lives. If a client is happy, we want to know that it is because of our efforts. If a client is upset, it is difficult not to feel at the center of that emotion, particularly if you have any self-doubt.
One of the most difficult things to do is to prevent your natural reaction to defend yourself when you feel attacked. Obviously, in an actual life threatening situation this reaction is helpful and can preserve your life. In most cases, however, we tend to quickly jump to a defensive response if we perceive that we are being “attacked” (such as with criticism). For example, if a client is upset and yelling about being dissatisfied with the outcome of their case, our natural reaction is to feel blamed. Client is upset = they are blaming me, which means they are calling into question my work, which means I have to defend my work. This defensive reaction usually does not improve the situation and often makes things worse. This is an attempt at making logical sense out of an emotional experience. So how can you have a calm reaction to a situation that seems to be similar to an attack?
Ultimately, it is not about you: One way to reduce your natural response to defend yourself is to tell yourself that the story you are being told is not about you. The story is actually about the person who is telling it. Take your upset client. If you were talking to a non-client who was upset at the outcome of their case you would be unlikely to feel blamed and feel defensive, which would allow you to focus on the underlying elements of their story. Acknowledging your client’s feelings (their disappointment or frustration) and telling them that you understand what is important to them is a great place to start. Focus on validating their feelings (e.g., “I can see that you’re frustrated. I get that, it was a disappointing outcome.”) and avoid trying to convince them that they’re wrong. After all, defending yourself is all about convincing them that they’re wrong and that you’re right. This hardly ever works the way we hope it will.
This takes practice. I can’t emphasize this enough. This takes a lot of practice. You are basically fighting against your instinctual reaction to defend against a threat. I recommend that you practice this technique with low-priority situations that are inconsequential. The more you respond to criticism in a non-threatened way, the less threatening criticism seems.
Shawn Healy, PhD