Friday, November 27th, 2020

Dangerous Liaisons: Handling Client Conflict Positively

By Lisa Sansom on Feb 21 2011 • Filed under How-To

How to handle conflicts with clients in a positive manner.

In a recent coaching conversation, a client brought two separate “difficult conversations” to the table. Most people have difficulty opening conversations that they fear will lead to conflict, strained relationships or emotional outbursts. Many of us prefer harmony, even if that means we sacrifice a bit of our own selves in the deal. Sometimes, we would rather do the extra work, put in the extra time or ignore our sense of what is fair, and just suck it up.

Conflicts can stem from simple misunderstandings that expand and explode over time. Catching misunderstandings early on can help to prevent fractured relationships, as well as eliminate the emotional turmoil and rumination that eats away at us.

Chris Argyris created a model called the Ladder of Inference, popularized in Peter Senge’s Fifth Discipline Fieldbook, that is quite useful in facilitating positive and clear communication. Next time you feel that a conversation went off the rails, it may be worth a try. Here’s how it works.

Picture a ladder in your mind. At the bottom of the ladder is a pool of water. This represents the data pool – the sights, sounds and sensations that are all around us all the time. The lights are on, the fans are humming in the background, there is a slight smell of stale coffee, the floor under your feet, the seat under your posterior – all of these sensations exist, and yet we are barely aware of most of them.We can’t possibly deal with the entire pool of data, and so we move up a rung on the ladder – we select data from the pool.

How we choose what to select is a matter of mindset, but generally we select that which is important to us and what we choose to pay attention to in the moment. So if you are in a conversation with your client, for example, you may choose to hear the words “… but I’d like to hear more about the social media project” rather than the words, “I appreciate all the good work you did on the market research…” that came beforehand.

Moving up another rung on the ladder, we attribute meaning to what we select. In the case of the Anson project, we may think that the client means that he is not pleased with the work we have done on the social media side. There may be reasons to believe this, but let’s just look at the words – all the client has done is ask to hear more. There is nothing in the words to justify our attribution, and we may be misinterpreting tone and body language.

Meaning can get even more misconstrued in email communications, which is why picking up the phone or meeting face-to-face are much better ways to resolve conflict than firing off yet another lengthy email justifying your position yet again.
After we attribute meaning, we make conclusions where we generalize from the specific situation to the general. In this case, we may conclude that the client is unhappy with our services. Over time, this can become a solid belief that this client is generally dissatisfied, or that client’s standards are too high, or that you are simply unable to work with that client.

Finally, we will move to the top-most rung on the ladder, where we take action. Based on the ladder we have created so far, the action might be to terminate the contract with the client as soon as possible. Or it may be to raise our own working standards. Or it may be to sub-contract the work.

What is most insidious about this ladder is that, next time we dive back down into the data pool and select future data, we will select that data which justifies our conclusions. If we have concluded that the client’s standards are too high, we will select data that also shows us that this client has impossibly high standards for work – we remember hearing it from other contractors, our memories of past experience supports that conclusion, and we sense it in future interactions because we are on the look-out for it. If the conclusion was that we can’t work with that client, we will remember times when working with that client was difficult and we will pick up on future cues that indicate a difficult relationship.

"Catching misunderstandings early on can help to prevent fractured relationships."

So what do you do? Is the ladder inevitable? Not at all. What interrupts the ladder and brings us back down to search for new data is asking questions. Simply asking the client, “And what would you like to know?” or “What about the social media project?” will open us up to new data. You may also ask, “It sounds as if you aren’t pleased with the project as it stands – do you  mind sharing with me how you feel about it?” which allows you to question your own assumptions and meaning with new data from the client.

With practice, working your way up and down the ladder – and inviting others to share their ladders – will open up conversation and help to handle conflict positively and productively, before it turns into something nasty and potentially irreversible.


  1. Client conflict can turn explosive quickly, thanks for your pointers!


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