How to resolve conflict with clients

Client relationships can at times be the most challenging relationships to navigate. They rely upon constant communication, can change quickly and are embedded with high levels of expectation. Despite our best efforts, they don’t always go to plan. And without continual transparency can result in conflict.

Conflict, in the course of a client relationship can cause irreparable damage. It can be exhausting in terms of energy, time and finances. It can mean we lose an account, income streams and also compromise our own reputation. We want to build great relationships with our clients. We want to prevent conflict. This also means we need to know how to deal with conflict.

Managing our client relationships is not simply about keeping our clients happy. It’s also about knowing how to resolve conflict with clients should it arise. The better equip we are in working through any potential conflict that arises, the better we position ourselves and our organisations as being fair, capable and commercially savvy. The best client relationships are those that deal well with difference.

We hope that conflict doesn’t arise in our client relationships, but at times high pressure situations and high emotion get the better of us. In short, conflict is inevitable. It is therefore imperative to put processes into place. Processes that steer us out of hot water and negative cycles and into open conversation and smooth sailing.

This begs the question how do you resolve conflict?

Where to begin?

Conflict knows no boundaries. It exists in all types of relationships. Client relationships are no different. The best place to start before we engage in resolving any conflict, is to understand and remind ourselves what it is and what causes it.

It’s not uncommon to disagree with others. In fact, a certain level of disagreement is a healthy thing in so much as it may encourage us to see things differently. But what separates disagreement from conflict? What elevates disagreement to a point that it becomes conflict? It’s simple. The answer is emotion.

A disagreement becomes conflict when raw emotion becomes attached. When it stirs up within the individual a charge or response, for reasons often ignored. When two people disagree, and emotion is attached conflict is created. It becomes incredibly useful to identify the two parts of conflict. Firstly, that there is an emotional component and secondly that there is one or more key issues or problems to resolve. Once we’re aware or the two parts, we can tackle these components separately and begin the resolution process.

The first steps of conflict resolution

All too often we try to resolve conflict with clients with little or no preparation. We wing it and hope it will work out. Needless to say, this approach often results in escalated conflict rather than resolved conflict.

Resolving conflict is a process. One that requires reflection and analysis. To begin to resolve conflict we need to start by deescalating the emotion that exists between two parties. We need to examine not only our own emotion in this situation but also the emotion of our client.

To understand the emotional dimension of the conflict, we need to decode the events that surround the emotion. In essence we need to begin by preparing to resolve the conflict. We need to follow a framework and process that allows us to see both sides of the conflict.  Pinpoint what was seen and heard, explicitly name the emotions felt, the assumptions that we are unaware of as well as the behaviours that have manifested between the parties.

There is no one solution to conflict. Each is unique and comes embedded with its own emotional dimensions and specific problems. By unpacking the conflict in a systematic fashion, we can begin to see more clearly what has occurred between the two parties. If we can name these aspects of conflict, we can begin to navigate them.

The first step to resolving conflict, is to plan and prepare for it. Consider the multiple points of view and begin to see how you and your clients have arrived at this turbulent destination.

Approaches to conflict resolution

Once we have engaged in preparation to resolve conflict and gained insight into the how we have arrived at this level of conflict, we then need to identify and solve the substantive issue/s at hand.

Once the emotional aspect is navigated, it’s not uncommon for there to be no real issue to solve. At times the conflict at hand may be all emotion. However, if there is a substantive problem to be solved, we must dig deep into the problem, identify root causes and navigate a way forward.

To handle conflict resolution, we have three broad approaches to solving the substantive issue/s. We have the following approaches available to us.

  1. Interest-based approach

An interest-based approach to problem solving is about understanding what’s important to each party and finding optimal solutions. Deep investigation into the motivating factors of both parties will allow you to understand the problem before trying to solve it. Examples of interest-based problem solving might include, mediation, facilitation, problem solving negotiation and coaching.

  1. Rights based approach

A rights-based approach is about seeking a determination of right vs wrong based on entitlement, law, evidence and standards. This usually involves a third party providing expert analysis and reaching an outcome for two parties. Examples of rights-based problem solving include, legal advice, investigations, opinions of authorities, and formal or informal arbitration.

  1. Power based Approach

A power-based approach is about using coercive strategies to compel others to agree or act. Individuals use their power to solve the problem. Examples of power-based problem-solving strategies include, silence or violence, escalation, political or public humiliation, denial of access or privileges (eg. membership), and punishment via the withdrawal of physical, emotional or relationship resources.

Each of these approaches to resolving problem solving in conflict each will produce different outcomes. To best handle conflict management, we should consider which approach is appropriate given the circumstances. It many cases it best to lead with an interest-based approach, followed by rights then power. When managing client-based conflict, we should use a power-based approach as last resort as the overuse of power when resolving conflict tends to negatively impact the possibility of an ongoing relationship.

Navigating threats

It’s not uncommon to be threatened in the course of a difficult conversation. There is very little to be gained from responding to a threat with a threat. Doing so only seeks to escalate conflict and makes it more challenging to return to a cordial conversation. Navigating threats effectively takes preparation and self-awareness. If we take time to consider the potential threats that may exist in a conflict and we anticipate them, we’re likely to be less reactionary on the moment. To proactively navigate threat, consider the following.

Re-frame the threat

We need to shift our mindset and see threats for what they really are. To put it simply, threats can be seen, simply, as an alternative your counterpart could exercise to meet their needs, separate from your conversation.

Acknowledge the threat

Where to from here? Now that we understand that threats are alternatives, where do we take the conversation? We acknowledge their threat. Make sure they understand that we hear and acknowledge the recourse they have available to them, separate from this negotiation. By doing this in a calm and unprovocative tone, we’re signalling to our counterpart that we’ve received their message loud and clear. We make them feel heard.

Reality Test the threat

Often our counterparts will threaten in a knee jerk reaction because of the way they are feeling – without thinking things through. In these situations, it’s important to apply some objectivity to their threat. Why don’t you be the person who pulls the tone back to reasonable and unemotional.

Reality testing is a way to apply an objective evaluation to an emotion or thought. In a curious and non-aggressive tone, we need to highlight external factors that might not currently be considered. For example, individuals often threaten to take their counterparts to court. In response to this, we might consider saying, “Court is an option, and it would likely take 3-6 months to resolve. It would also cost between $10K- $20K each, not to mention the personal stress and energy we would exhaust in the process. There’s also the added cost of not resuming our normal business. I don’t know about you; I think we can do better.”

It’s important to practice these responses. This is why preparation is particularly important. The more prepared we are, the more likely we can respond in a composed fashion.

How to begin the conflict resolution conversation?

We want to ensure we have prepared before we initiate the conversation. After preparing, if we’re going to initiate a conflict resolution conversation with our client, we want to begin by framing the conversation. Begin with neutral language you may consider the following.

  1. Describe the topic in a neutral way (“Today I’d like to talk with you about…”)
  2. Explore both perspectives (“I want to learn…”)
  3. Find a mutually agreeable outcome (“in order to achieve…”)

Using inclusive, non-accusatory language will only assist you in navigating conflict. In approaching the conversation in this fashion, we are setting up the conflict conversation for resolution compared to escalation.

How to Prevent Client Conflicts – conflicts and communication

We need to actively manage ourselves to prevent conflict from occurring. Why? When it comes to conflict management often our assumptions get the better of us. As human beings we have tendency to see ourselves in a positive light and others in a negative light. Often, we assume negative things about others. These assumptions aren’t always accurate. If these assumptions continue unchecked, then they can result in misunderstanding and potentially lead to conflict.

Many organisations engage in conflict resolution training. It’s well established that workplace conflict in addition to being exhausting, impacts an organisation work culture and bottom line. One thing better than engaging training to solve conflict within a company, is to engage in training to prevent it from occurring in the first place.

Some strategies to consider include. 

Ask for clarity don’t assume you know what others mean

Whenever we’re in the course of resolving conflict with our clients. We need to ask ourselves, ‘What am I assuming here?’. It may be the case that you’re assuming that your client is looking for something that they are not. But perhaps there’s been a simple misunderstanding. Pause, and fight the urge to assume the negative. Consider why your client might be feeling this way and where your wires may have gotten crossed.

Engage in active listening and active speaking to avoid miscommunication.

One of the most powerful tools you can use in the course of any conflict resolution conversation is to really listen to your counterpart. All too often we are listening to reply and not listening to understand. Listen will enable us to understand challenges more effectively. Active speaking involves slowing speaking down and sharing one idea at a time as well as ensuring your client has understood exactly what you have said and what you mean. It’s also important to invite others to seek clarification. A simple, “What questions do you have?” will go a long way in making your counterpart feel comfortable to understand you more deeply.


It’s fair to say the conflict resolution isn’t always an easy process to navigate. It’s usually rife with emotion, misunderstandings and difficulty. This is made even more challenging when the conflict resolution needs to take place with a client. We need to take a preparation driven approach to effectively resolving conflict with our clients.

Managing our client relationships is not just about keeping our clients happy. It’s about taking proactive steps to be open and clear in our communication, manage expectations and prevent potential conflict from arising. More than this, it’s also about being prepared to resolve conflict effectively.

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