How To Deal with Difficult Clients as a Coach (Without Losing Your Mind)

how to deal with difficult clients

How to deal with difficult clients is a challenge every life coach will face at one point or another. 

Handling challenging client interactions is an unavoidable part of being a coach! You may have the best coaching skills and strategies, but there will always be one client who seems impossible to please or manage.

At times, you’ll feel like pulling your hair out. 

But here’s the thing: learning how to deal with difficult clients effectively separates an average coach from an exceptional one.

Keep reading to discover:

  • What is a difficult client?
  • How to deal with difficult clients
  • How to spot difficult clients so you can avoid them

What is a Difficult Client?

Identifying a “difficult” client in life coaching isn’t as straightforward as it might seem. These clients aren’t necessarily problematic individuals but present unique challenges within the coaching relationship.

Here are a few examples of the difficult clients you may encounter.

The resistant client

Clients who display resistance can be challenging for coaches to navigate. This resistance often occurs in their reluctance to embrace new perspectives or take decisive steps toward achieving their goals.

This behavior usually stems from underlying fears – fear of failure, success, and even change itself! Can you relate?

The unrealistic expectations client

Another type is those with unrealistically high expectations. They expect immediate results and see you more as an instant problem-solver than a facilitator guiding them on their journey to personal growth. 

Managing such people involves setting clear boundaries right at the onset while managing these lofty expectations appropriately.

The negative attitude client

Some clients come with a negative attitude, which can be draining. 

These clients may constantly complain, criticize, or have a pessimistic outlook. But if it makes you feel any better, these clients likely need you the most!

How to Deal with Difficult Clients

Let’s say you’ve landed a client, and they suddenly become difficult. What do you do?

First, don’t panic! Before you fire this coaching client, try the following strategies to cultivate a healthier relationship with them.

1. Active listening

One of the most important skills for a life coach is active listening. 

And not just for handling difficult clients!

Active listening involves fully focusing on the client, understanding their concerns, and reflecting back on their thoughts and feelings. It helps build trust and rapport, even with difficult clients.

Now, active listening on its own won’t solve all issues with a difficult client. With that being said, you’ll establish a stronger line of communication if you regularly practice active listening – even when you’re getting frustrated by a client’s antics.

2. Empathy and understanding

Difficult clients often have underlying fears or insecurities that drive their behavior. Very rarely is a difficult client being difficult on purpose, just to annoy you!

So before you lash out or show frustration, remember that empathy and understanding will go a long way. Some people who hire coaches have never been fully seen and understood by people in their lives, so they’re coming to you in the first place!

And it can be challenging for them to open up, especially if they’ve only recently hired you as a coach.

By showing empathy and understanding, you can create a safe space for clients to open up and explore these emotions. This can lead to breakthroughs and positive change in their lives, but also in the coaching relationship!

3. Setting boundaries

With clients who have unrealistic expectations or negative attitudes, it’s crucial to set clear boundaries. 

But to be clear, you should set professional boundaries with every single coaching client who hires you. Doing so can save you a ton of hassle down the line – and prevent a client from becoming difficult in the first place!

For instance, you can establish what is and isn’t acceptable behavior during coaching sessions. Can they ask questions as you talk, or should they wait until the end? 

Do you get paid upfront, or do you offer payment plans? And if clients pay late, what are the consequences?

Boundaries maintain a professional and productive coaching relationship. But it also helps you protect your energy, no matter who you work with.

4. Reframing and challenging perspectives

You can use reframing techniques for resistant clients to challenge their perspectives and help them see things differently. 

And, let’s face it, that’s already part of your job as a coach!

This can open new possibilities and encourage clients to embrace change and personal growth. Just remember that it may take a few tries for some clients to see from a different perspective.

5. Conflict resolution

When disputes crop up between you and your client, you should handle the conflict quickly and with respect. 

Listen to the client’s concerns, validate their feelings, and work towards finding a resolution that benefits both parties.

Here are some other tips to resolve conflicts with a client:

  • Use neutral language and remain as objective as possible
  • Separate the client from the problem – your client is a whole person separate from their specific behavior in this conflict
  • Reflect on their words back to make sure you understand what they meant to say

Conflict resolution will get easier as you gain more experience. Remember that feeling nervous or anxious about altercations with your clients is normal!

How to spot difficult clients so you can avoid them

You can’t predict the future and know who will become a difficult client. But you can learn to identify potential red flags and sidestep any unnecessarily challenging client relationships.

In other words, you can permit yourself to say no to these clients.

Let’s cover some of the most common red flags of future difficult clients.

1. Unrealistic expectations

A common trait among problematic clients is having unrealistic expectations about what they hope to achieve from their sessions or how quickly they expect results. 

These people often believe that change will occur overnight without understanding the time commitment required on their end.

Of course, the first step to mitigate this red flag is to be clear in your marketing message. 

But you can look for these expectations during initial conversations and discovery calls. You can also set these expectations by being specific with your offer. 

For example, you’re a dating coach talking to a potential client. If this person expects to have a successful date every single evening, expectations may not be aligned… unless that’s your actual offer!

2. Poor communication

Potential clients exhibiting poor communication habits may pose challenges long term, particularly if there seems to be a lack of respect for your boundaries right from the get-go. 

For instance, do they arrive late to discovery calls without warning you beforehand? Do they consistently DM you expecting an immediate response outside of your clearly-stated working hours?

Or do they simply seem to struggle to actively listen to you?

Of course, some people may struggle with communication while being open to working on it with you. But if that’s not one of your specialties, poor communication is definitely a red flag.

3. A lack of willingness to participate in your process

Another telltale sign of whether a client would prove troublesome lies in their willingness to participate actively in your coaching process. 

Clients who are hesitant to accept advice and feedback, or take ownership of their actions, often present more difficulty than those with a willingness to listen and consider different perspectives.

Remember that clients will be paying you for your expertise. If they’re not willing to accept that expertise and put in the work, you’ll struggle with that client.

4. Hesitation with contractual obligations

Delayed payments? Won’t sign your coaching contract on time?

These are all great examples of red flags. As a coach, you’re a business professional, and potential clients should treat you as such.

Of course, you’ve got to show up as a professional to be treated as a professional. But if a client doesn’t want to play by your rules, it’s never a good sign.

Dealing With Difficult Clients: Remember That You Make The Rules

Understanding what makes a client challenging is the first step to managing them effectively – but it also helps you mitigate difficult clients in the first place.

Now you’ve got some strategies to spot and manage clients who give you a hard time. But remember, not all difficult clients are worth keeping – spotting potential troublemakers early on can save you stress in the long run!

Remember that every client you say “yes” to is also one fewer “new” client you can find. That means that every difficult client takes up the spot of a dream client you could go find right now!

Does that mean you should jump ship at the first sign of trouble? Of course not. But weigh your options carefully when deciding what to do with each conflict.

Need help streamlining the admin side of your coaching business so you have more time to manage your clients? With Paperbell, running a coaching business online has never been easier! Try it for yourself by claiming your free account.

how to deal with difficult clients
By Charlene Boutin
Charlene is an email marketing and content strategy coach for small business owners and freelancers. Over the past 5 years, she has helped and coached 50+ small business owners to increase their traffic with blog content and grow their email subscribers.
August 7, 2023

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