Managing the Emotion Pendulum

How to help clients feel good about a project because it’s their idea to feel good about it

This is a mental model I’ve found useful when interacting with clients, especially in situations where things aren’t going as well as we’d like (or as they’d like), or when we need to deliver bad news. Those situations are as much about how we communicate with the client as about what we do for them. It’s a really simply concept, but can have great effects when applied consistently.

The Why

Think about how your client feels about a project or a situation as a pendulum. On the left end is “You’re fired”. On the right end is “I’m calling your boss to tell him to give you a raise. By the way, we’d like to pay a 15% premium on top of the original price.” Your client’s current state of mind is probably somewhere in between. Delivering a successful project requires a high quality product of work that does what we claim, and equally requires your client to believe the work product is rock solid and ready to go. A component of that convincing is getting them to swing their emotional pendulum further over to the right.

The What

Recognizing where your client is on the pendulum is the first step. Look for what they’re expressing — grave concern? Anger? Mild disinterest? Elation? Figure out where they are right now on the pendulum.

Now — here’s the important part -

When you talk to the client about the project, always be a little bit behind them on the emotional pendulum.

If they say “This is the best software in the whole wide world!” your position should be “Yeah, I agree, it’s pretty good.”

If they say “This is pretty good software!” your position should be “It is, isn’t it. We’re going to make it even better in the next release.”

If they say “I’m a little disappointed we didn’t get everything in this sprint” your position should be “I hear you, and I really feel like we let you down. Here’s what I’m going to do so this never happens again.”

Think of it like The Chicago Way in reverse — instead of escalating up, you’re moving back a little each time.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xPZ6eaL3S2E

This sounds backwards

It does. I agree. But here’s the thing — it’s in human nature to want people to be as optimistic as you are. When you’re just a little behind the client on the pendulum, and they sense that, their inclination is to pull you up to their level of excitement and enthusiasm. They’ll respond by telling you how things are better than you think they are. And in that process, they’ll actually push themselves even higher up the pendulum — and at the same time, putting themselves in a position to be more prone to giving you goodwill and support.

You can’t pull a client up the pendulum, but you can get them to pull you.

By comparison — ever try to cheer someone up who’s feeling down? How often does it actually work? When you tell them “It’s not so bad!” do they ever look at you and say “Wow, you’re right. It’s not. I’m all better!” Of course not. But if you recognize their feelings, acknowledge them with empathy, they’re more likely to say, “Thanks for hearing me. I feel a lot better now.” Similar interplay is at work in client communications — especially in those “bad news” situations. You can’t pull a client up the pendulum, but you can get them to pull you.

But shouldn’t we be MORE CONFIDENT than our clients about project success? Shouldn’t we be out ahead of them? How do you lead them if you’re going negative all the time?

Absolutely. This is a paradox of leadership and persuasion. You have to do both at the same time. Don’t confuse “getting behind them on the pendulum” with “worry”. If the client says “I’m worried about the delivery dates” The right response isn’t “don’t worry, we’ve got this” (getting ahead of them on the pendulum, nor is it “Me too. I’m SUPER worried and I don’t see how we’re even going to get this done!” (which is definitely behind them on the pendulum, but will pull them further down.) The right response is “I hear you. I’ve had some similar concerns around that final date as well — in fact I spent a few hours this morning putting together a remediation plan to get us a few days ahead of the original schedule, so we’ve got some breathing room. I feel terrible you even had to worry about that for a single minute, and I’m going to do everything in my power to ensure that you never have to wonder about hitting a date again.” That puts you slightly behind them on the pendulum, shows that you’re ahead of them in owning the situation, and also conveys that you care about the impact this has on them (that’s the empathy part). Their natural instinct is to say something like “Well I really don’t want you to worry about it too much. I appreciate your concern. Let’s take a look at that plan.” You’re taking a position of concern, behind them on the pendulum, but still staying firmly in the driver seat. John C. Maxwell, in his book “The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership,” refers to this as “Faith and Fact” — Navigating with faith that the future is going to be as it should and can be, coupled with facing and accepting the facts of the situation as it is in the present.

What it comes down to is, in all circumstances, good or bad, making sure that the client knows that you’re just a little more committed to making this succeed than they are.

Overdoing this will backfire on you

One mistake I see people make when trying to apply this model is that they get TOO far behind the client on the pendulum, as in “Hey, you were late to our progress meeting yesterday.” responding with “You’re absolutely right. I can’t believe I let you down like that. I’m going to go tender my resignation immediately. My replacement will be on the next call.” Don’t do that.

When you’re too far behind the client, their perception is that you’re either a little unstable, or that you don’t really understand the impacts correctly. You run the risk of being seen as a reactionary, rather than as a leader— and that’s hard to come back from. You’ve got to really be able to read the other person, understand where they are, and then position yourself just a little bit behind them.

Quick categories

I break clients’ emotional range down into these categories in my head:

  1. You’re fired
  2. I am NOT ok
  3. I’m worried
  4. I don’t care
  5. I’m optimistic
  6. This is great, I want more
  7. Will you marry me

I like to keep my clients in the 5–6 range as much as possible. When they hit 7, they tend to get irrational in a whole other way, popping champagne corks early, declaring victory too soon, pushing up release dates, adding scope, etc. 5–6 keeps them positive, willing to concede in negotiations later, and still acting as a champion for us and wanting to see the project through.

Example / Counter Example

Let’s say your client calls you and says “I didn’t really like how our meeting went this morning.” How do you respond?

Right Move — just a little behind: “You know, I’m glad you brought that up. I noticed that we pulled the meeting off-topic way too much for my comfort, and I’m sure it was pretty frustrating for you to sit through that. I don’t ever want a meeting with us to be anything less than a valuable use of your time. To that end, I’ve already reminded my team that these are working sessions with a clear purpose, and it’s contingent on us to maintain that focus. I’m personally going to watch for any conversation drift at the next few sessions a lot more closely, so that we do better as a whole team. How’s that sound to you?”

Bad Move #1 — too far behind: “I’m so sorry. I’ve really dropped the ball on this. Getting off topic twice in one meeting is totally inexcusable and unprofessional. I’d completely understand if you fired me right now.”

Bad Move #2 — trying to be ahead: “Really? I thought the meeting went great. Sometimes my team gets a little off topic, but most of the time it produces some really great brainstorming. You’re going to see some great outcomes from those diversions in the project, let me tell you!”

Bad Move #3 — matching too close: “Yeah, I didn’t like it either.”

Remember — you can’t pull someone up the emotion pendulum, but you CAN get them to pull you.

Opportunities

Communication techniques like this take practice, and the first 100 or so times you deliberately try to walk yourself through it you’ll feel awkward, stilted, and a little insincere. You can use this mental model in almost any conversation, but it’s most powerful as a part of your toolkit for handling Crucial Conversations — those where stakes are high, there are differences of opinion, and emotions are involved. Crucial Conversations is a longer topic for another day though. (and one of my top-10 must read leadership books, if you haven’t already seen that list.)

Application

The next time you need to have a semi-difficult conversation with a client, whether it’s about team dynamics, budget, scope, timeline, quality, anything at all — think through how you’re going to approach it. Then, when you engage with them, follow these steps:

  1. Figure out through tone, words, and body language where they are on the pendulum.
  2. Decide where “just a little behind them” is
  3. Frame a response that is
  • empathetic and acknowledges their concern
  • lays out what you’re doing about it
  • expresses a level of concern and commitment that slightly exceeds their own
  • invites their feedback and buy in

I think you’ll find that if you follow those steps, your clients will be pulling you up the pendulum behind them in no time.

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