When Clients Argue: 7 Steps to Ease the Tension
Occasionally I have a client experience that leaves me feeling beat up. Not for the organizing, but the arguing. It’s usually because the people in the room are expressing pent up frustration. It can be a parent/child relationship, but mostly it's couples. And mostly during a decluttering project. This type of experience is rare, but it’s good to have some tools at the ready just in case.
In fairness, I really do want to work with both spouses at the same time if it’s a shared space because it needs to function for everyone who uses it. Every person approaches organizing differently. Cassandra Aarssen’s clever Clutterbug system is a great example of this (and worth checking out). It’s my job as the organizer to understand each person’s perspective and create a workable system. I ask a lot of questions about process: who’s in the space, what do they need it to do, who’s responsible for which tasks, what’s the vision for the space, etc. Most couples really appreciate the fact that I’m truly listening to both of them. It’s usually a positive and rewarding experience.
Sometimes my questions open the door for them to express some pent-up frustration. About the space, but sometimes more. Things they didn’t have permission to say before seem safer in this context of organizing. When one gets tired and wants to take a break, the other accuses them of never helping out. When one shares their vision for the space, the other calls them unrealistic or a dreamer. When I ask one how they would like the space to be they say it doesn’t matter because it’s just going to be whatever she/he wants it to be. When one wants to keep something, the other rolls their eyes. Sometimes we uncover gifts one has given the other that never got used – or even opened. Hurt and guilt.
Interestingly, in every couple there is one who is more emotionally vested in decluttering than the other. It’s not that the other person doesn’t want the improvement, they just aren’t bothered by the clutter as much. Ironically, it’s usually both that have contributed to the clutter, but one that really needs it to go away.
This is the one that is trying to help me organize the other’s personal space so it will stay tidy. During a recent comprehensive home project I organized both partner’s home offices. One of the partners had no interest whatsoever in the other’s office. But the other was completely vested in their partner’s office space from the room layout to the desk contents. I get it. I’m usually that person. If we can just get it set up correctly everything will stay neat. Nope.
The problem is that their partner’s personal space is no longer personal. Frustration coming from both sides. Throw an organizer into the mix and sometimes it’s a little tense.
First, let me say that I’m not talking about a full out yelling match. (That would be a different blog post. Mostly leave and don't go back.) This is just what I would call fussing at each other. And second, it’s ok that you’re not a therapist. It’s not your job. But here are seven things you can do that may help.
1. The best thing you can do is get out ahead of it. If it’s a big multi-room job do the easiest room first. A shared successful experience goes a long way in setting the tone for the rest of the project. It establishes trust in you as the organizer, and trust in each other that they can achieve a shared goal.
2. If you can, let the next session(s) be with each one separately on their own spaces like a home office, craft/hobby room, man cave or she shed. That way you get to know how they process tasks and learn their strengths and challenges. When you come back together on a larger or more difficult space you will be better equipped to assign tasks that play to each partner’s strengths. This also helps each partner see that the other is taking their responsibility seriously. More trust building.
3. If your spidy sense tells you that one of the two is having trouble with the process, make an adjustment. Often during a decluttering session people will get a headache, feel ill, feel anxious, develop a physical pain, or just become overwhelmed. It is a vulnerable process and can be very stressful to some people. Don’t ask them to power through. Redirect to a different task or just give them permission to take a break.
4. Praise each person in front of the other for their progress – authentically. People can spot bull shit. Be specific and genuine. Encouragement and kind words go a long way.
5. Lightness and even humor can also be a tension reliever when used appropriately. Use your intuition to read the situation. Sometimes just laughing and saying something like, “Wow, you guys really do look at things differently! Let’s see if we can come up with a solution that works for everyone," can change the energy of the moment.
6. Take care of yourself. When you are an empath, stressful situations can be draining. It’s important to take care of yourself. Walk quietly to another part of the house if you need to until the moment has passed. You clients will probably appreciate the privacy. But most importantly keep finding as many positive things to concentrate on as you can. Look for things to appreciate about each person and the situation. It can be a powerful tool to keep yourself calm and present. Choose to see their strengths and the progress you have made.
7. The truth is if it’s an ongoing problem one of the two partners will just stop participating. And that's ok! You will probably get more done. And, the positive improvement in the house will still be felt by both.
Sometimes tension means people are stuck. They just need a shift. Something to change in their lives to wake them up, to nudge them to move forward. Sometimes it’s a change in their environment. They perceived the need to seek out a professional organizer to help them, and the Universe brought you. You get to help them create a better life. Sometimes it’s messy, but so is the decluttering process. Probably because they’re the same.