Asking questions can sometimes seem confrontational. But if we make the client too comfortable, how can we be sure of getting to the root of the problem? Malcolm Sleath suggests some ideas from an unlikely source.
Q: I've always been taught that successful client meetings depend on the consultant asking the right questions in the right order. But recently a colleague told me she thought I was making a client defensive. I thought I was deepening our understanding of the problem by getting to the facts of the situation. How do I keep the client, and my colleague, happy but still get at the information I need?
A: When I coach consultants, I sometimes compress the planned sequence for a client interview that might last an hour into a dialogue taking less than a half-minute. My aim is to "speed up" the process to show how it works, in the same way that time-lapse photography helps the viewer to understand nature. But I have to be careful. When presented in this way, the interview can sound like a cross-examination, which is definitely not the effect I want the consultant to reproduce.
I'm sure you don't want your clients to feel they are under cross-examination either, but it's worth bearing in mind the trial lawyer's famous maxim: "Never ask a question to which you don't already know the answer." If you can get a good idea of what the client is likely to say before you ask the question, you can frame it in a way that seems sympathetic rather than challenging.
Recently, when reading a book for family reasons, I came across three rules that made me think hard about the way we relate to clients, particularly during the early stage of an interview.
* Don't ask questions
* Never contradict
* Learn to love repetition
The book is called Contented Dementia and is written by Oliver James, a clinical psychologist. In a nutshell, the book contains a tried and tested method for enabling people to lead happy and relaxed lives when they have lost the power to process information about the "here and now".
While I must resist the temptation to draw too many parallels between the people James is writing about and the average client, these rules present a useful antidote to the "forensic" approach that many consultants adopt at the outset of a meeting and clients find off-putting.
Don't ask questions: At first, this really went against the grain for me. I can extol the benefits of "open ended questions about the past" for minutes on end. But then I realised there was much to learn from letting the client set the scene and context, rather than wading in with my own assumptions.
For example, simply saying, "Thank you for agreeing to meet me. I guess it might not have been easy to set aside the time" – and then shutting up, gives the client the opportunity to let you know exactly how he or she sees this meeting in relation to what is happening at the moment. If you listen carefully to the response, instead of just hearing it as "noise", you will learn a great deal about the client's values and priorities, and what is really going to be on their mind the second after the door shuts behind you.
Never contradict: If the client responds with something fairly provocative like: "Well, ninety-percent of the time I spend with consultants turns out to be a complete waste, but I suppose I should give you the benefit of the doubt," the temptation is to rush in with some kind of reassuring statement about doing our best to make sure the time is well spent, and so forth. Don't. It's just another form of contradiction.
Instead, reflect back your understanding: "It sounds as if you have had some fairly unproductive experiences." Listen and learn. The client is just about to set out the criteria that you must meet to earn their trust, even if it is comprised of a list of "don'ts".
Learn to love repetition: Jamespoints in his book that there are comfortable themes to which the "client" returns. As consultants, we tend to pride ourselves on being "quick on the uptake". If the client repeats himself or herself, the temptation is to reassure them we have got the message and try to move on to something else.
But instead, we should ask ourselves, "Why is it they are returning to this theme time and time again?" Is it because it is "comfortable" and represents an area in which they feel secure, in which case I should find ways to build on it so we can move forward? Or is it something to do with a half-understood anxiety that, if left unaddressed, will undermine the project at some critical point in the future?
Of course, I'm not suggesting for a moment that James's "non-invasive" method (actually he learned it from his mother-in-law, but that's another story) is sufficient for an entire consulting approach, but it illustrates perfectly what some people call the art of "dancing with the client". This is about following their moves, in much the same way that we might copy someone's movement in a dance class or when learning a sporting skill. By doing so, we activate the responding parts of our own brain to get a deeper sense of what it feels like to inhabit their skin.
This is how we learn what the answers to our eventual questions are likely to be. So, instead of being a rapid-fire sequence, our questions become a way of testing our understanding of the picture we are building up. The core of the question might be crunchy, but it is wrapped in a soft coating of empathy that reassures the client we are on their side.
Well-constructed questions give structure and shape to the client interview, just as a beautiful body is based on a well-proportioned skeleton. But few people want to get into bed with a skeleton. It's the way the padding is arranged that makes a body so attractive that we can't wait to get alongside.
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Our thanks to Malcolm Sleath of 12boxes for these regular contributions, which take the form of a question and answer tackling a different issue each fortnight. The steps in Malcolm's answer were derived from the 12boxes method. Where necessary, names and details have been changed and events compressed in the interest of clarity.
© Malcolm Sleath 2008. All rights reserved.