CG #33 – Is Your Client Toxic or Merely Difficult?

We all have ‘em:  Clients that bring out the worst in us, clients we have trouble loving, clients for whom the work seems doomed.   What’s a consultant to do?

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You know what I’m talking about.  It’s the client you can’t do anything right for, the one where everything you do backfires.   It’s the job where you act like an amateur even though you are a seasoned pro.  What can be done about these clients?  First off, let’s ask a better question.

Because it’s never the person, it’s the system.  And you’ve gotten caught in it.

That’s the first sign you may be in a toxic system, rather than a merely difficult one.  With a difficult client, you can recognize the cow pie in time to step over it.  In the toxic client system, you can’t help but step in it.

Here are the four steps I use to navigate a toxic system.

There are certain signs that let me know I’ve left the waters of typical resistance and entered the bizarre world of the difficult client system.

There is a big difference between ordinary resistance and a client system that’s gone toxic.

See if these toxic symptoms sound familiar to you:

  • They keep you in the dark.  There is an inner sanctum, and you are not allowed in.  It does not matter that the information you need to solve their problem is in there. You are on your own, without a map or compass.
  • You can’t do anything right.  Not only is figuring out what to do a moving target, but when you do take aim and fire, you know it’s going to rebound on you.  And you know it’s going to hurt, because the entire system is going to smack you.
  • If the difficult client system responds to a request, it’s a feeble, vague response, like “I don’t know.” or “We don’t have one of those,” or “We’ve never done that before.”  You are passed from feeble person to feeble person like a hot potato.
  • Feeble alternates with over-reactive, as when your client sounds the alarm and copies God and everybody on the email about your most recent failing, then micromanages your every move.
  • Although it’s hard to get people to talk to you, it’s clear they are talking about you.  The toxic client system has a lightening-fast communication plan: Gossip.

The gift of diagnosis is that it demands you perform the first function of consulting:  Separating your “stuff” from your clients “stuff.”

Compassion that holds others accountable is the best indicator that you’ve accomplished this.

Until you do that, you are in no position to help anyone.  You’re too hooked.  That’s what’s keeping you up at night. Not your difficult client, but your own stuff that’s been activated by this client system, this assignment, this situation.   That’s why I’m going to do this part for you:

In the toxic client system, anxiety has gone viral.

That’s why everybody is acting crazy.  That’s why you are acting crazy.


Unlike empathy and sympathy, which can both leave you paralyzed, compassion is rooted in accountability, and accountability takes action.   Compassion connects without merging, and doesn’t let anybody off the hook.   Though we are in this together, compassion knows we are walking separate paths of responsibility.

Accountability is separating out the 3 strands of responsibility – yours, mine,  and God’s.  You can’t be effective in someone else’s business.  When you are minding your own business, you are no longer “hooked.”.  And when you’re no longer “hooked,” compassion arises in you without effort.


Taking too big a step makes it easy to stray into someone else’s business. Straying into someone else’s business is how the client systems got toxic in the first place.  That’s why you need to make every step you take in a toxic client system smaller.  Make your actions so small you don’t appear to have moved at all.  Be respectful, even theatrically respectful about your requests.  You have to look and act harmless.  This is the only way to make progress without causing the system to react against you.

When I am working in a toxic client system, I accept that the system may be too anxious to make even the smallest positive change.  Knowing what they can tolerate is their business, not mine.   In those instances, I focus on the person or relationship I can strengthen and let go of the rest.



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