How To Deal With A Crying Client

I had an e-mail from a coaching client yesterday asking me how she could have effectively dealt with a client who started crying on a consult.

This is NOT an easy question to answer because this comes down to your experience, intuition and ability to step back and give the prospect some space.

Is Life Coaching The Best Option?

I think the first thing to point out is this could possibly be a signal that the client is better suited for therapy than for Life Coaching.

However, that may not be the case and I have had clients in tears on several occasions over the last decade and it wasn’t always a bad thing, or simply because they were regretting hiring me!

People can often burst into tears when they feel a sense of relief or of being listened to when that hasn’t been the case.

It’s quite possible that the prospect has been working up to asking for help for a long time and the sheer action of making the call brought all that frustration to the service in an open display of emotion.

I have to say, I would be more wary of this happening on a consult than I would be if I had been working with somebody for a few sessions and knew a little bit more about them.

In either situation the first thing, is to resist the urge to dive in and start asking what’s wrong.

I will always back off and say something like:

That’s ok, take as long as you need and I’m ready to go when you feel able to talk”

Give Them Space

Then I’d shut up until they spoke.

In a coaching call there’s a good possibility you know what the issue is and how to continue.

Maybe they just lost their job and it’s up to you to support them and help build their hope and confidence back up.

Or maybe they had a partner walk out on them, and similarly, you are just there to support and help (as tactfully as possible) without offering solutions.

But on a consult you may have no idea, so you need to tread carefully.

We are not equipped to deal with mental illness. Nor are we equipped to diagnose it.

Even so, I have a list of questions that I may ask that can give me an ‘indication’ as to whether the person is suffering from something more severe than mild depression.

Some examples are:

  • Do you ever feel that there’s no hope of things changing for the better?
  • Do you have trouble sleeping and/or concentrating?
  • Do things that once interested you now seem pointless or not worthwhile?
  • Do you suffer from low energy levels?

None of those necessarily determine if a client is depressed, but they are signals that it maybe the case and you can Google plenty of similar questions if they don’t suit you.

If All Signs Point To Depression – Be Wary

If I’m getting ‘yes’ to those questions I will probably ask if they have sought advice from their PCP or are taking any medication to help them.

This happened to me a couple of weeks ago when I suspected a woman was suffering from moderate to maybe severe depression.

When she told me she’d been in and out of therapy and off and on medication for 25 years it was time to put the ego down and move on.

I think it’s possible that under certain circumstances I can help people who haven’t benefited from therapy, and you may also be able to on occasions.

But it’s a huge roll of the dice and not one I would encourage you to take and not one I take.

If the prospect (or client if it’s early stages) says that they haven’t sought help, then I’d suggest they do so.

Again it’s possible to do this tactfully and with compassion by saying something like:

“I really appreciate you contacting me and your interest in hiring me.

At this stage I think it would be wise to have a chat with your medical doctor and get his or her opinion.

It maybe they say you’re good to go and then I’d love to hear back from you.

Or it maybe that they think you need a bit of medical help to get you up and running.

I just want to ensure that whatever we do, it’s the best thing for you in the long run. Is that ok?”

As I’m writing this post I realize what a complicated topic this is and how much of it comes down to ‘feel’.

Because if they say they are on medication and they are obviously still struggling to deal with their emotions then it can be even trickier.

Sometimes you just get a sense there’s something seriously amiss and other times it’s either not, or it’s not obvious.

I’d advise on the side of caution if you think somebody may be seriously depressed or have mental health issues.

Sure it’s never fun turning a potential client down or ending a relationship because you realize you may be out of your depth, but it sure as hell beats making things worse for the client, damaging your own confidence and potentially ending up with a law suit on your hands.

Image Courtesy of Benjamin Lehman


  1. Kay

    Thanks Tim for this post. I had a prospective client cry during the consultation. I made the mistake of asking if she was okay and ended up listening to her for 45 minutes as I didn’t know how to handle the situation!!

  2. Hi Tim,

    I think the nature of the crying will dictate in a large way how we deal with it.

    I have had clients cry where it just felt like a realisation and a breakthrough moment, a freedom from a way of thinking so to speak. Then it is as you said, take your time and we can continue when you’re ready.

    And I have also had a client crying that I thought was suffering with depression but I didn’t act on it soon enough. I put how I handled this one down to inexperience, but early on I should have pushed harder with the fact that I really did think she needed someone else with different qualifications to mine. It worked out OK in the end but I had bitten off more than I could chew.

    Next time around I will be a lot more aware of what “type” of crying is happening, and using that very useful list of questions you provided sooner rather than later. It really does depend on the ‘feel’ though


    • Tim Brownson

      I just had a client crying because she had to look at my face, but that’s ok to just push on through with.