Dealing with Toxic Clients

What do you do when a client is abusive or overtly disrespectful? How do you respond if they decide to be a complete barrier to the success of their own mission? What if the client says or does something that is malicious or potentially harmful to your career (i.e. they bear false witness)?

You can plug any of these situations into a search engine and get plenty of great advice on responding to adverse situations like these. But my goal in this post is not self-help, instead, it is about self-reflection.

I want to explore the idea of how you or I should respond internally instead. Let’s reframe the topic. Instead of “Dealing with Abusive and Toxic Clients” let’s reframe the discussion to “Dealing with Yourself When Dealing with Abusive and Toxic Clients”.

Dealing With Yourself When Dealing With Toxic Clients

When a client is abusive, disrespectful, or harmful to me, how do I deal with myself? Do I repay their transgression with aggressiveness or passive aggressiveness? Do I complain bitterly about them behind their backs? Do I let anger fester and develop resentment? Or do I simply sulk?

Unfortunately, I have been guilty of all these responses at one point or other over the years. Thankfully, bad clients are the exception, not the rule. But when I encounter one, they have a way of jarring my universe. Over time I have learned that my response both internally and externally is everything. It is actually the only true power that I have over the situation.

Today, when the occasional bad client rears his head, I still get jarred, but my response is more graceful and my inner balance more quickly to return. I did not learn to deal with the adversity through a tip I read in a self-help book. Instead, I learned to be more resilient to the toxic client by understanding the toxicity within myself.

Confronting the Toxicity within Myself

One evening I was reading through C.S. Lewis’s “Mere Christianity” when I came to the chapter, The Great Sin. Regardless of your religious beliefs, what would you consider the greatest sin or vice? Of all the terrible things that might come to mind, Lewis makes the argument that it is pride. I was instantly intrigued. Pride? Not murder or rage, sexual lust or rape, racism, or oppression… but pride. Lewis points out that, “… pride has been the chief cause of misery in every nation and every family since the world began.”

Lewis makes a compelling argument. He also says of pride: “There is no fault which makes a man more unpopular, and no fault which we are more unconscious of in ourselves. And the more we have it ourselves, the more we dislike it in others.” (The bold emphasis is mine.)

Nearly every toxic client I have ever encountered behaved out of motives based in pride or self-conceit, a place of desiring superiority, attention, and control. But it is also in my own pride that I take such offence. It is in my own pride that I might sulk and quietly seethe with anger. Who is this person to lord their superiority complex over me after all? As Lewis rightfully points out, we who are the most prideful hold it in the highest level of disdain.

Lewis continued to dig the knife deeper into my back as I continued to read:

“Does it seem to you exaggerated? If so, think it over. I pointed out a moment ago that the more pride one had, the more one disliked pride in others. In fact, if you want to find out how proud you are the easiest way is to ask yourself, ‘How much do I dislike it when other people snub me, or refuse to take any notice of me, or shove their oar in, or patronize me, or show off?’”

What I was coming to understand was that this hang-up I was feeling when confronted with toxic clients (or teammates, friends, and neighbors for that matter), was not coming from a place of hurt, but a place of unhealthy competitiveness. It was because I desired to be the Alpha. I wanted the attention, the credit, the respect that I felt entitled to.

As I completed the chapter, I realized just how guilty I was of this diabolical pride. This pride that Lewis referred to as a dictatorship and “a spiritual cancer … [that] eats up the very possibility of love, or contentment, or even common sense.”

Solving the Problem of Pride in Myself

The opposite of pride is humility. But how do I find true humility? Not feigned humility or a fake-it-til-you-make-it type of humility. How do I find genuine humility, which is the only path to love, contentment, or even common sense?

CW Lewis offers the following guidance: “In God you come up against something which is in every respect immeasurably superior to yourself. Unless you know God as that – and, therefore, know yourself as nothing in comparison – you do not know God at all … A proud man is always looking down on things and people.”

I have come to admit that I cannot find a path to love, contentment, or even common sense outside of this acceptance of an immeasurably superior God, and my insignificance in the face of that God.

In the Christian tradition, we are taught that our purpose in life is to serve in love, just as God did for us through Jesus Christ. On the surface, this can be a hard pill to swallow. This path of humility can feel insurmountable at times. It is a path I must re-focus, pray and meditate on regularly.

But what I have learned with time is that there is both protection and success in business with this approach. I have learned that it is possible to withstand adversity with grace and tact. And when firmly rooted in love and humility, it is sometimes possible to turn the adversarial client into a fan… or perhaps even a friend.

Books we discussed in this post