9 Simple Strategies to Dealing with Difficult Clients: Social Work Edition

If you are a social worker, you have worked with people and if you’ve worked with people, you’ve dealt with difficult clients or service users.

Have you ever been tempted to scream, leave your job or even cry because someone frustrates you so much?

Well, you are not on your own.

People who cause such frustrations are demanding and want to be right, no matter how wrong they are.

Some might appear rude because they might be anxious or in a hurry, and some are just plain rude.

Difficult clients are the ones who will push you to do better because they question your skills, which makes you work harder.

Dealing with Difficult Clients: Social Work Edition

dealing with difficult service users in social work

You want to prove to these people that you’re able to do your job, and since they challenged you, it has now become a situation in which even though you don’t like that person; you want to make that person as happy as possible with the service you’re offering.

There isn’t just one definition of a difficult client because many types of demanding service users or clients will make anyone’s life hard.

The classic Karen is a person who needs to talk with the manager about your conduct.

She has challenged every suggestion you have put across and makes her own rules.  You have tried to Build a Relationship with this person, but to no avail. 

Another difficult client is the one who knows your role better than you and therefore, they can tell you how to perform your social work role. 

This person will make you wonder why they hired you to do something they can do themselves.

The answer? They can’t; they like to tell someone else how to do their job because they Googled it or saw a tutorial on YouTube one time.

You can also find the client who tells you that “they trust you” and “I won’t give you any answers because I know you can do your job,” and then, after hours and hours of work, they’ll ask you to change everything.

You might be tempted to ask them, “Why didn’t you give me any indication when I asked you for feedback?” but unfortunately, you can’t do that because you have to pay your bills.

There is also the service user or client who needs the job done today.

The classic Karen wants things done instantly. They’re running late and aren’t willing to pay for fast delivery either.

You can also find the client that is happy with the work you did, but they’ll try to get as many changes as possible.

They start with minor changes, and then you end up re-doing the entire work you just delivered, but you can’t be upset or tell them you do not have time.

How do you deal with difficult service users or clients?

dealing with difficult clients in social work

As a social worker, there are ways to deal with difficult situations involving service users or clients:

1.0 Stay calm

Stay calm and collected.

If you’re dealing with an unhappy service user or client, chances are you’re going to get angry and upset the service user or client even more.

Be polite, ask the right questions, and make sure the service user or client goes from yelling at you to thanking you at the end.

2.0 Set boundaries

Being available 24/7 is not something the service user or client is entitled to.

Truthfully, you do not even have 24 hours in a day!

If you’re sending out emails all hours of the night, you’re signaling that you are available any time of the day.

There will be days when you don’t want to read your emails, and that day, it will make your customers angry.

If you like working late, queue your emails to send the next morning or when you’d like your work hours to be.

Setting boundaries also includes being mindful of the language you use. Remain professional and honest when working with people. 

3.0 Respect the person

There is a gold rule according to Matthew 7:12 which reminds us to ‘do to others what you want them to do to you’.

Based on this, if you treat others with disrespect, you will receive the same treatment back.

Saying ‘thank you’, ‘please’ and speaking politely will not only help strengthen the relationship you have with service users but will also make them show you some respect.

You may be interested in this article on 7 Easy Ways to Show Respect. 

4.0 Read their body language

difficult service users in social work

Another way to avoid upsetting service

users or clients is by paying attention to their body language.

If their body language is closed off, your technique isn’t working.

Look out for cues such as crossed arms, feet that point towards an exit, and tensed up shoulders.

If someone is unconsciously showing you these signs, you need to change your approach.

5.0 Fix the problem and leave immediately

Sometimes, interfering too long in the lives of others may frustrate them.

It may also mean that you’re causing more harm than good.

As a social worker, when you are allocated a case, take your time to familiarise yourself with the chronology of events and gather any relevant information as quickly as possible.

That way you can help with any support or intervention as quickly as possible and prevent delays.

There will be times when demanding clients will challenge your skills.

Don’t be disheartened, remember that although you are there to help, not everyone will welcome your help.

6.0 Be empathetic

Remember that someone might just have had a bad day, and they’re taking it out on you.

Don’t judge them as soon as you meet them.

Try approaching them with kindness.

They’re probably going through something and don’t know how to deal with it.

You can definitely tell the difference between someone who just wants to fight and someone who’s had a bad day.

Showing empathy is an Essential Social Work Skill which allows us to look past stereotypes and remain nonjudgmental.

It also allows us to seek for the individual’s strengths and positive qualities.

7.0 Build a rapport

Social work is about working with people and Building Relationships.

Get to know the service user or client on a personal level while maintaining professional boundaries.

Learn about their hobbies, their family and lives.

Show a genuine interest.

8.0 Get other people’s point of view on the situation

difficult clients in social work

It is likely that your colleagues may have encountered a similar situation in the past.

If they have, find out how they dealt with it.

By sharing your story with others, they will see things from a fresh perspective and offer some useful tips on how to handle the situation.

9.0 Ignore people who appear difficult

If everything else fails, the best way may be to ignore.

If you have already done everything you can, but the person is still not being receptive, then just ignore.

Get on with your daily work schedule.

However, if you do feel the need to escalate it, then do so.

Sometimes, the only way to get people to cooperate is to involve others in higher authority.

Before you go,

Try out these 9 tips when faced with difficult situations involving people, service users or clients.

Hiding or quitting your job is not the answer.

This is because in social work, it is difficult to avoid or hide from people.

Do not quit your job because someone has refused to collaborate.

Remember that you can’t keep quitting when people have opposing views or are being difficult.

Rather, equip yourself with these tips.

In addition, take some time to reflect. 

Through reflection, social workers can seek to understand each service user as an individual by noting their concerns and encouraging participation.

Participation initiatives result in a redistribution of power and equal relationships. 

9 Simple Strategies to Dealing with Difficult Clients: Social Work Edition

  1. Stay calm
  2. Set boundaries
  3. Respect the person
  4. Read their body language
  5. Fix the problem and leave immediately
  6. Be empathetic
  7. Build a rapport
  8. Get other people’s point of view on the situation
  9. Ignore people  who appear difficult



dealing with difficult clients in social work

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