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Why is This Difficult Client So Difficult?
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Why is This Difficult Client So Difficult?

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All attorneys have difficult clients at some point in their careers. What’s the best way to deal with them so, despite themselves, they can get the best outcome possible and you can keep your sanity? One possible approach comes from psychologist Abraham Maslow who created what he believed is a hierarchy of needs that we all have. Meeting the needs of your client, perhaps above and beyond legal advice, may help your client and your relationship.

Maslow believed that difficult behavior was caused by unmet needs, starting with the most basic needs to support life to the most esoteric issues that we face.

Maslow stated there are eight categories of needs that motivate us, the lower the level the more basic.

  • Transcendence
  • Self-actualization: pursue an inner talent creativity, fulfillment
  • Need for aesthetics, beauty
  • Knowledge and understanding
  • Esteem: achieve mastery, attain recognition and respect
  • Love/belonging: friends, family, spouse, partner, lover, acceptance
  • Safety: security, freedom from fear, stability
  • Physiological: food, water, shelter, warmth

Maslow believed that people are motivated by unmet needs, starting at the bottom which have priority over the higher needs. Once the needs at one level are met, the person strives to satisfy the needs on the next level.

When in mediation it’s important to understand how these needs are affected.  The more fundamental the need the greater the response to that need. If you’re hungry enough you’ll do anything to eat. If you don’t feel safe you might work very hard, or steal, to afford a safe place to live. If someone feels they’re not being understood, they may act difficult if they feel an unmet need to communicate.

What level is your client on? If the person’s basic needs are met (food, water, shelter) are they in fear for some reason? Having family problems or issues with a spouse? Does the person feel disrespected or feel that you haven’t fully communicated with him or her, leading to some misunderstanding?

To best represent a client generally, or in mediation or negotiation in particular, you need to understand your client. What are his or her goals? Are there unmet needs that are leading to this person being uncooperative or having unrealistic expectations?

Next time you need to deal with a difficult client try to step back from your annoyance. Ask questions to find out where your client’s needs are. Where is the client on the Maslow ladder? Is there anything you can do, say or suggest to help fulfill the needs the client is grappling with? Once those needs are met perhaps your client will relax a little, see things in a more positive light and be easier to work with.

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Steve Mehta
Steve Mehta

Steve Mehta has been frequently asked to mediate cases that involve a variety of complex and emotional issues, including elder abuse, medical malpractice, real estate, personal injury, employment, probate, and business matters. Since 1999, he has mediated several thousand cases.


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