When it comes to critical conversations, consultants have a huge weakness. They just cannot help themselves. They know they shouldn’t do it but the urge is too great. It just has to come out.
The white angel on the consultant’s left shoulder says, “Don’t do it, don’t say it, now is not the time – it’s too early.”
The red devil on the consultant’s right shoulder says, “Go on, it’s fine, you’ve heard enough, just say it.”
The consultant gives in, the nodding begins, the eyes glaze over and then:
“Ok, I understand.”
Saying, “I understand” too quickly during critical conversations is a big problem for consultants and a concern for the organisation’s for whom they work. It can lead to fewer new projects being agreed; it can make consultants seem arrogant; it can lead to a break down in client relationships and it can put an end to opportunities before they have even begun.
Fundamentally, saying, “I understand” too quickly suggests that the conversation is all about you (the consultant) and not about the client or prospective client.
The key goal of any conversation must instead be to ensure that both parties jointly understand and take responsibility for what is required to progress the opportunity.
Saying, “I understand” too early in a conversation implies that you have stopped listening. You are not that interested in what the other party has to say and you don’t need to hear any more. Rather than forming the basis for an on-going dialogue, you have decided to stop the conversation.
In the client’s mind, hearing “I understand” early in the conversation actually means, “Let me stop you there. I have seen this many times before. You are just the same as my other clients and I have exactly the solution for you.” You are no longer a consultant but a pushy salesperson and your client simply feels like another number.
During critical conversations, consultants need to remember that it is all about the client and, according to David Maister, there are some key stages consultants should go through in every conversation.
Create context and give the client a reason to talk to you. Create a connection and illustrate credibility.
Keep asking questions. Do not offer a solution and don’t claim to understand. It’s too early. What is the reality of the situation? Explore the situation as equals. Show empathy and perhaps define an initial problem.
Validate issues and opportunities. Provide a perspective or point of view. Involves identifying, hypothesising, testing and organising the essential issues.
Without the consultant implicitly saying “I understand” instead the client starts to think, “Yes, this person really understands the issues I am facing.”
Use language of possibility. There is a ‘joint creation’ of what success looks like and a joint understanding of what is at stake. Gain the right to clarify the vision and objective. Move beyond simply from what the consultant understands to a joint understanding.
The client now has a clear understanding of what is required and the next steps. There is a mutual trust and a commitment to continued dialogue. The possibilities for the client, consultant and consulting firm remain significant.
Now the consultant can move away from saying: “I understand” and instead confirm to the client: “Understood.”
In your next critical conversation with clients or prospects, do not give in to the red devil on your right shoulder and resist the temptation to say, “I understand” too quickly. Instead, remember the following key points:
- Do not sell or be too quick to offer a solution – if you push, you will be pushed back
- Keep asking questions and listen – explore the situation as equals
- Give examples to illustrate how the client’s situation is the same but different
- Neutralise the inclination to be judgemental and to jump to conclusions
- Come to a joint understanding – at the end of the conversation the consultant should in a position to say “Understood” and not “I understand”.
Should you recognise this situation in your firm, get in touch and let’s start a conversation.