How to Deal With Difficult Clients

October 18, 2021
Janelle Thomas MSN, RN
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As a nurse, you’re used to dealing with all sorts of different personalities — from doctors and family members to your clients. While most of these personalities don’t impact your day-to-day, a difficult client can make coming into work a drag. On the one hand, it’s easy to understand how someone dealing with a myriad of health issues may have an off day. But, on the other hand, the challenge for treating a difficult client can be overwhelming. So, what can you do?

5 Tips for Dealing with Difficult Clients

1. Recognize the Cause

First, think if there is something that you’ve done that caused your client to react poorly. If you’ve been caring for your client appropriately, then the cause is usually not personal. This means that your client is being difficult because of some other factor. If the client has a doctor’s appointment or a procedure coming up, then anxiety and fear for the appointment may be causing them to lash out. If your client has been acting out, talk to them to see if you can pinpoint the underlying issue.

If your client is a child, non-verbal, or unable to pinpoint the cause of their own feelings, then you may consider reviewing their medications for any side effects that impact their mood. Pain is also a common factor for difficult clients, so you may let your client’s doctor so you can provide them with a pain reliever to see if this improves their demeanor.

2. Pause & Listen

Between administering medications, cleaning G-tubes, and updating charts, you don’t always have time to stop and connect with your client — especially in a hospital environment where you have several clients to care for. But, taking a moment to pause and spend time with your client can show them that you care.

Sometimes, difficult clients want to feel heard, so they come up with minor requests that can overload you. By listening and connecting with your client, you can make them feel understood — which means they’re less likely to come up with needless requests. Make sure you use eye contact and mirror words they’ve used.

3. Set Boundaries

Sometimes, the best way to de-escalate a situation is to step away and give your client some space. Stay in control while defusing the situation, but don’t be afraid to step away if your client is becoming increasingly angry and the situation isn’t improving. This is vital in situations where you believe your client can become physically aggressive, and you feel like your safety is at risk.

Setting boundaries can also include setting the right expectations. If your client throws a fit whenever you leave the room, you should talk to your client and reset their expectations for how you provide the care they need. Some tasks may require that you leave their side temporarily — such as retrieving medications or getting supplies. By explaining these scenarios and talking through these fears with your client, you can help them remain calm, even if they don’t see you.

4. Pay Attention to Body Language

Body language doesn’t just clue you into how your client is feeling, it can also impact how your client reacts to you. If your client is starting to become difficult — whether that’s throwing a fit, becoming aggressive, or raising their voice — stop and think about your body language. Are you tense? Are you avoiding eye contact? Are you shrinking away? Is your face getting red? Take a deep breath, stand your ground, and speak calmly.

You can also use body language to detect problems before your client has a meltdown. Are they avoiding eye contact? Do they seem reserved? Are they sleeping more than normal? Look for changes in their behavior and address shifts in their body language. Talking through what emotions they’re feeling can help mitigate the risk of the problem getting worse and make them feel heard.

5. Don’t Accept Abuse

As a nurse, you care for your clients and want to do everything you can to provide them with what they need. But, overexerting yourself or allowing yourself to take abuse from a client is a quick way to experience burnout. It’s understandable that your client will have a bad day, but that doesn’t excuse their actions.

Physical or verbal abuse from your client is not appropriate. Firmly but calmly, tell your client that their behavior is unacceptable, and then talk to your manager. If you care for a client in home health care, your manager may be able to assign you to a client that is a better fit for your nursing style. At the end of the day, you must put your mental and physical well-being above those you care for. If you don’t, then you won’t be able to offer them the proper care that they need.

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