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Getting alongside

2005 September 20
by Malcolm Sleath

How do you stay focused on the client’s needs, without losing sight of your professional agenda?

Very often, we think we are driving the discussion forward, while the client thinks we are trying to take control. It can turn into a tussle.

Sometimes you have to let go to keep control. It’s a question of getting yourself into the right frame of mind.

I’ve noticed that people I admire seem to take the conversation out of the realm of personal power, and place it in some kind of protective envelope.

One of my colleagues does this by thinking of his clients as a puzzle to be solved. His interest is driven by the desire to make sense of their actions. Sometimes he seems detached and even a little cool, but clients like his style because he always sounds interested without having an axe to grind. One of the things clients look for in a professional is the quality of being interested yet disinterested.

I try to imagine myself alongside a client looking at the view. This frees me up to organise my thoughts about how the client sees things.

If your hunch about what the client needs is correct, letting the client have some space will allow the need to emerge. Pushing it forward creates the impression that you are pursuing an agenda. It’s only when the need emerges in the mind of the client that your solution will be seen to have any value.

  • Anonymous

    Some clients are dominant, almost aggressive. It’s difficult to see how to influence someone who has already made up their mind and just wants a consultant to rubber stamp their ideas. Sometimes they don’t even really listen. They enter into a conversation which you contribute to, only to find at the end that they really haven’t taken in anything you have said. Even if you have asked them questions that should stimulate them to think about their situation.

    I refer to such people as Butterflies, since they flit from one subject to another believing that they are solving their problems, when in fact they don’t realy absorb anything from anyone else.

  • Malcolm

    It’s true that some people are motivated by control and power, and you have to decide whether you want to be part of their scenario or not. If you do, and you still want to recommend alternatives, they have to be couched in terms that will turn them on.

    As to influencing someone who has made up their mind, in 12boxes terms they have a vision of what they want to achieve, they can already imagine the changes in their situation, and they are now interested in pursuing a solution that fits with their vision.

    I don’t pretend that it is easy to get such a person to retrace their steps in the hope that under your guidance they will reach a conclusion that you are going to be more comfortable with, although in some circumstances it can be done. In these instances you are really in a negotiation. Borrowing a concept from ‘Getting to Yes’, you have to think in terms of focusing on the interest they are pursuing, as opposed to the position they have taken. You then find yourself saying things like, “So what you are really aiming to do is …” and “Would you be prepared to consider some alternative routes to achieving that?”

    As to the ‘butterfly’ brain, it’s worth remembering that attention deficit disorder is not confined to children. I can think of at least one instance where someone has built up a business, and made a great deal of money whilst appearing to be suffering from one or more personality problems.

    Working for such a person is always going to make you feel like being a tin can tied to the tail of a dog. You can make money in such situations just by winning the person’s trust and hanging on in there, but it doesn’t sound to me as if you would find that particularly satisfying. It’s not so much about making money, or even keeping them happy, it’s what such working relationships are likely to do to your own feelings of self-worth and your level of confidence when sitting in front of the next client.

    At times like this it’s a good idea to remember what makes a successful psychiatrist. (A successful psychiatrist is one who picks patients who are going to get well.) For a consultant, picking the right client is as important as knowing the right solution. You are your key resource. Don’t let yourself get beaten up by clients if you can find alternatives. It pays in the long run to be discriminating.