Psychology of family practice: “Don’t tell me what to do!!!”

This is where we think about family practice on a deeper level – about all the fascinating stuff that lies beneath the surface of what we do.

This time we’re focusing on the age-old problem of “difficult clients”. You know, the ones who don’t do what you want them to, no matter how hard you try to reason with them. The ones who often have a knack for doing exactly what you’ve told them not to do.

  • Posting about their ex on social media.
  • Sending the inflammatory text messages you tell them would be a mistake.
  • Recruiting the children in opposition against their co-parent.

As family practitioners, working with such clients can leave us feeling impotent, disrespected and slightly pointless.

We try our best but they still don’t listen.

What about us?

What we tend to do in response to this kind of behaviour is to diagnose certain clients as “difficult”. “Resistant”. “Oppositional”. Sometimes downright obstructive.

We go in even harder, thinking if we present enough analytical and logical arguments, then eventually they’ll get it. But often they don’t. And it starts to become us vs them. When we’re supposed to be on “the same side”!

What’s really going on here? Yes, there’s no doubt that family law clients can be very tricky. But could it be that it’s something about the way our relationships are set up that exacerbates the resistance we face from them?

Directive or directional?

As I say, in law school, we’re taught that, if you meet resistance, the way to deal with it is head on. Does this work? Often not.

People dig their heels in. They double down. They get annoyed. Why? Because it’s clear we don’t respect their agency. They can sense that. Their hackles rise. Their defences go up.

Choo choo

To take you off on a bit of tangent (bear with me …) what do you think happened when a US train station constructed floor to ceiling barriers to try to stop fare evaders?

The answer is not what you might expect!

Instead of stopping people from ever being able to dodge paying for travel, studies showed that would-be evaders simply found ways around it. They became more persistent, more intelligent and more cunning about avoiding payment.

Counter-intuitively, having barriers that didn’t completely erase the possibility of evasion were found to be more effective.

What’s this got to do with the price of fish?

Well, studies like this show that respecting people’s autonomy and allowing them some latitude often encourages them to find a healthy course. Whereas, if we batter them down with our bull in a china shop approach, then they become resistant.

So, what does work?

Working with people’s psychology, of course!

*Evoking* from them their own motivations to move in a positive direction, rather than seeking to control or even overpower them with our reasons.

Don’t bombard them with reasons why they should do what you want them to do. Allow them to explore the reasons why they are seeking to do “the bad thing”. So, if they fancy dumping on social media about their ex, ask them (genuinely not sarcastically) what they might get out of it. What do they think it will give them? How does it help them?

It may be that, in their answers, you might spot a kernel of a realisation or a subtle suggestion that they might realise that there are downsides to what they’re doing as well.

If so, you can draw that out gently: “it sounds like you’re saying there might be some downsides?”

If they don’t show any whiff of such a realisation, then you can ask: “what might be the drawbacks or the implications?”

Then summarise both sides, ending with an emphasis on the drawbacks.

By giving them space to explore both sides, you make it much less likely they’ll dig their heels in.

And if they just don’t get the message? Then of course at that point you can suggest that you provide some feedback. You can then be more directive: “I think this could be criticised by a judge”, or, “it’s probably not going to be helpful for the kids”.

And ask “How does that sit with you? What’s that like to hear?”

Again, invite in that agency from them. That sense of collaboration.

I find that employing this more staged approach gives lawyers more job satisfaction (particularly given so many family lawyers find the confrontational aspect of the job exhausting). And you won’t feel so burnt out and drained by all the roadblocks and the obstacles that you encounter when you’re taking the more old-school, directive approach.

Give it a try!

© Annmarie Carvalho 2024

Annmarie Carvalho is a therapist, trainer and former family solicitor and mediator at The Carvalho Consultancy. If you’d like to receive training on this subject, get in touch at