Years ago, I was working with a particular client who was bossy, insulting, and demanding. I dreaded conversations with him; I felt horrible afterwards, and I had to spend time decompressing before I could get back to work. I knew I had to get rid of this drain on my energy.

We’ve all worked with difficult clients, clients who are abrasive, oblivious, or, bullying. We know how frustrating and energy-draining it is to have conversation after conversation, and meeting after meeting, with a client who’s difficult to work with. And we know that once we get started down the road to frustrating conversations with clients, it’s hard to get back on track to professional and productive conversations.

Part of the reason for this is that you can get into patterns. One frustrating conversation sets you up to have another frustrating conversation, which sets you up to have another one, and so on.

How to change the direction of frustrating conversations

The good news is, there’s a way to change direction. Studies show that having good experiences doing something, makes you more likely to have good experiences doing the same thing in the future. Except this sounds like a chicken and egg problem, right? If you need to have good conversations with someone in order to have good conversations with them in the future, but you can’t have any good conversations with them, how can you change?

The answer is to create an experience in your mind, to imagine a good conversation with this client. Spend some time creating a mental image for yourself, of exactly how a productive conversation with this client would go. If you do this vividly and specifically, you’ll create in your mind a good experience. That will set you up to have real good experiences later on, the same as if you actually had the good experience you imagined.

The reason this works is because, as studies have shown, creating a vivid mental image of an action or situation, creates the same neuronal activity in your brain as if you actually experienced that action or situation. Think of it as creating a set of unconscious memories and associations about how a particular conversation will go. Then when you’re in the conversation, your brain will activate these memories and associations, and help you create a better conversation.

Imagine your “best possible outcome”

One technique for creating a (mental) good conversation with a difficult client is to imagine the best possible outcome of the conversation. Here’s how to do this.

1. Set aside some time

Set aside 10 minutes when you won’t be interrupted. More time is better – say, 20 to 30 minutes – but you can get benefit from even a small amount of time. Have something you can use to record all of the details of your image: your phone, or a piece of paper and a pen.

2. Create a mental image of your best possible outcome

First, take 5 minutes to create a mental image of everything that would be true if you had a good conversation with this client. Imagine that the conversation has gone as well as it possibly could, you accomplished everything you wanted to, the results of the conversation are everything you hoped they’d be, you have felt positive emotions during the conversation and continue to feel them after it was over, you have lots of energy to do the work you love.

3. Use all of your senses

Use as many of your senses as you can. Studies show that the richer your mental image is, the easier mental access will be when you need it. So, imagine how you’ll be sitting or standing, the expression on the client’s face, the tone of their voice, the way your surroundings will look, what your surroundings will smell like (yes, really).

4. Write down your mental image

Second, take another 5 minutes to record everything about your mental imagery of this best possible outcome. File this away somewhere where you can find it again.

Do this as often as you can

The more often you imagine your best possible outcome, the better you’ll prepare yourself to have a good conversation. If you can do it once a day, great, or a even couple times a week. If you only have time to do it right before the conversation, it will still help you.

Of course, imagining your best possible outcome for this conversation doesn’t mean you’ll automatically have a good conversation. The client probably won’t change his or her behavior. But over time, your conversations with this client should get better and better. Think of it as “training” your client on how to behave towards you.

Additional things you can include in your best possible outcome

If you have more time than 10 minutes to imagine your best possible outcome, you can create specific imagery about what you will do during the conversation. You can imagine typical parts of a conversation with this client, and create a mental image of how you would like to respond.

How i did this with that @#$%&! client

This makes me grin with delight, even after 15 years. That client I mentioned at the beginning of this article? One day, as I was preparing to call him about a deliverable, I spent some time imagining what a productive and professional conversation with him would be like. I thought about my tone of voice, the words I would use, how calm and courteous I’d be. I didn’t think about taste or smell, but I’d do that now.

Then I picked up the phone and called the client. Sure enough, he was as bossy, insulting, and demanding as he always was. But I stuck to the mental image I had created for myself. At one point in the conversation, I suggested to him a way we could proceed with a particular task. He responded with something rude; I’ve forgotten the exact words (thank goodness), but it was probably something along the lines of “That’s stupid, you don’t know what you’re doing, you’re incompetent.” I acted as though he had said something polite, and responded, “Good, it sounds like that will work for you. How about if I get it to you by close of business Thursday?”

He responded, “You’re irrational!!” (I’m not making this up), and started to say something else equally rude. But I simply said, “Close of business Thursday it is, then. Thank you very much, I appreciate your time.” Believe it or not, he hung up on me! But he never spoke like that to me again. From then on, our conversations were civil and professional. (And not long after that, I stopped working with him.)

Create your best possible outcome, and have good conversations

So, if you find yourself going down the road of frustrating conversations with a difficult client, create a new direction by mentally creating good conversations for yourself. You’ll feel better, have productive and professional conversations, and have more energy for your work.

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