Clients don’t always prepare properly for an assignment, leaving the consultant to manage their entry into the situation.
How do you handle client personnel who withhold their cooperation?
Q: Recently you suggested that you ‘never contradict’ a client How to find answers without asking questions but how do you deal with a key member of client staff who seems to specialise in being obstructive? I’ve tried the softly softly approach, but he just clams up and doesn’t respond, knowing that he is in a position of strength because of his specialist knowledge. The client is aware of the problem, but he says that he is relying on my ability to ‘win hearts and minds’.
A: This wouldn’t be the first time that a client leaves a consultant to address an issue he or she is not prepared to confront. Sometimes the client is hoping that there will be some kind of blow-up to bring the issue to the fore, without having to take personal responsibility for being the cause of the upset. They can then step in as the ‘reasonable peacemaker’, writing the incident off to a ‘clash of personalities’.
From what you say, the client is hoping that you will rise to his implied challenge and take the difficult person on. If you do this without the explicit support of the client, including a clear understanding about what he will do to reinforce your strategy, it’s almost certainly a no-win situation.
If you see it as your role to blindly play the role of scapegoat, go right ahead, but don’t expect it to end well for you or your firm. On the other hand, if you avoid confronting the issue, this is going to affect the success of the project and your professional reputation. The key skill is to confront the issue, not the person. Here are some principles that you might apply to dealing with the ‘difficult person’.
Listen to yourself: Many of us pride ourselves on our ability to deal with pressure. However, if you have mounting feelings of irritation take heed. This is an early warning sign that you are putting more than fifty percent into a working relationship, or operating on assumptions that are unsound.
Be objective: Describe to yourself what is happening between you and the ‘difficult person’ in the most objective way you can. Think of yourself as writing the plot synopsis for a soap opera. The important thing is to look at the motivations and perspective of both characters, and not just use it as an opportunity to ‘vent’. (Although you might need to spend a few minutes doing that to ease the pressure. Sometimes it helps to use a trusted colleague as a sounding board.)
Think outcomes: If the present impasse is allowed to continue, what will be the outcome for each of the parties, particularly your opposite number? If the issue is resolved, what will be the likely payoff? This is important because you need your ‘difficult person’ to focus on the situation, and not to redefine it as a personal conflict with you.
Get into the right frame of mind: Now imagine yourself and the ‘difficult person’ sitting alongside one another looking through a window at the situation. Imagine that you are pointing out different aspects of the view to one another, in much the same way that tourists do when ascending a famous viewpoint.
Put your thoughts in order: Sometimes it helps to write this as a script, but be careful you don’t treat it as a speech. The script is to help you keep on track during a meeting. If you have thought through the structure in advance, and you are not struggling to maintain your focus, you will be more patient and be open to listen to the other person. Order is also important. You might think your difficulty is perfectly obvious, but it may not be clear to the other person.
In the following (imaginary) example, I’ve used the structure of a script learned in assertion training to guide me. Use the words in bold to trigger your thoughts when preparing your script.
“When I did not receive the figures on Thursday” (Describe objectively what has happened that caused you the problem)
“I felt concerned” (Describe your feeling, but don’t go over the top, leaving the other party free to accuse you of ‘over-reaction’.)
“because I thought we had reached an understanding about how important the figures were to the success of the project” (‘Because’ seems to be a very powerful word. Don’t assume the person will know why you were concerned. Spell it out.)
“I understand that you have many demands on your time, and this project might not seem important when compared to the urgent demands of colleagues” (Put the person’s motive in the best possible light – even if you believe their sole intention was to frustrate you.)
“but from now on I expect you to stick to the agreements we have made” (You need to specify exactly what you want to happen.)
You may or may not feel you need to make the following two points immediately, but you must have them clear in your mind. Saying them straight away might make you come across as heavy-handed. On the other hand, if you have not thought them through, you might sound as if you are bluffing. It’s a case of speaking softly, knowing there is a big stick within easy reach.
“If we stick to agreements, there will be time for me to consult you properly with a view to incorporating your ideas and suggestions into the project” (Think in terms of the payoff to the other person.)
“If not I will have to make recommendations on the basis of the information available to me, and make clear any areas where I have not been able to access sufficient information.” (This might seem low key, but it represents a realistic and credible assessment of the outcome. It’s saying to the ‘difficult person’ that he is likely to be cut out of the decision-making process, and have to account for his conduct to his boss at a later date.)
In situations like this, repetition and consistency are very important. Some people want to emphasise the consequences, but for me, the two key elements are “I understand” and “but”. More often than not the consequences (particularly the negative ones) are understood and can be held in reserve. As the conversation progresses, you can adapt the “I understand” part to what the person is actually saying in the meeting.
Having thought through your script, you can then talk it through with the commissioning client, and get their positive assent to your strategy. Once they realise there is a way of dealing with the ‘difficult person’, they may well make suggestions about motives and outcomes that will help you make the strategy more effective.