Like most consultants, I consider myself highly motivated. I’m motivated by solving complex problems and moving on to solve the next complex problem. My natural inclination is to go hard, go fast, and not stop. That works for me.

But does that work for my clients?

Much more often than not, it doesn’t. In fact, this approach is more likely to burn bridges than to build bridges.

So what do I do? I dial back the volume.

Consultant Volume Dial
The Consultant’s Volume Dial

I’ve found that when I dial back the volume, two things almost invariably happen:

  • Change happens slower than I would prefer.
  • When change does happen, it is deeper and more fully-embraced by people.

I’ll give an example with a story about a client I once had whom I’ll call Chris. When I first met Chris, he let me know exactly what he thought of me. With his body language, attitude, and actual words, he made it very clear that he didn’t respect consultants and that even though he had just met me, he was sure that there was nothing that I could offer him that he needed.

As we worked together in the following days, he challenged and rejected everything I said. Every single time I said something, he would try to discredit what I said. I believed that his goal was to simply reject anything and everything that I said.

So what did I do? I dialed back my volume. I dialed it back to the lowest setting.

I listened to everything he said. When he gave a 15-minute speech during a “collaboration” meeting, I listened. When he explained how something I said was wrong, I listened. When he gave recommendations that I believed were very bad, I listened. I listened and would only respond with expressions indicating that I was listening, such as “I see”, “Okay”, “Gotcha”, etc.

After some time had passed, perhaps a couple of weeks, I began to turn up the volume and reflect back exactly what I had heard him say: “My idea won’t work because as a consultant, I don’t really have the perspective of employees here, and so what I said really isn’t valid,” to which he replied, “Yes, that’s exactly what I said,” as he continued to shoot me down.

After a few more weeks, I turned up the volume one notch and began to paraphrase what I heard him say. “So Chris, I heard you say that my idea might not be the best solution because while it might work in an ivory tower, you believe that it won’t work here in the real world.” He replied, “Yeah, that’s more or less what I said.”

As time went on, I gradually turned up the volume more and more. I began to summarize, ask powerful questions, and eventually, I was able to begin making small suggestions.

Then one day, something amazing happened. During a team meeting, Chris told me in front of the whole team, “Steve, I really appreciate what you bring to the table, and I recognize that you have experience in workflow management that I don’t have. I know that now is not the best time, but I would like for you to instruct me in what you know because I think I could really learn a lot.”

I was flabbergasted. (I still have a hard time believing that Chris actually said this.)

It worked. It really worked. Chris was trusting me and asking me to instruct him.

At the same time, you have no idea how painful it had been for me over the previous few months. More times than I could remember, I had bitten my tongue, held back instead of giving the team the right answer, kept quiet when I had been openly challenged in front of the team, and humbled myself with my silence when Chris believed that he had defeated me in a debate.

Because I had dialed back the volume, I earned his trust. Because he trusted me, I could ask powerful questions, make small suggestions, and sometimes even give advice. Then on rare occasions, he was even open to my instructing him on specific topics. Because of this trust, I was able to move between a coaching stance and a consulting stance depending on what was most needed in the specific context.

All of my painstaking effort of dialing back the volume paid off because for the first time, and finally, Chris trusted me.

Was it worth it?


Author: Steve Schmitz