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Take off Your Happy Face! Why Consulting Clients Love Disagreeable Consultants

Your consulting clients walk into each engagement holding bouquets of helium balloons they want to release to the sky. (Metaphorically, unless your clients are clowns.) Each balloon is an assumption, preconception, hypothesis or dream that only requires your confirmation.

Often you’ll grant their wish, agreeably snipping the strings of doubts that restrain your client’s balloons.

But if you’re a truly outstanding consultant, you’ll wield your intellectual pin and pop some of those balloons. Bang!

After the startled shock of watching their idea explode, some clients may start to bawl. Most, however, will thank you… if you burst their balloons correctly.

Let’s back up a step. Agreeing with your clients and supporting their thinking creates some value.

  1. Confirmation boosts confidence, which is beneficial, particularly if a client was hesitating to take an important step.
  2. Affirmation boosts self worth, which also has value for consulting clients in any situation (except, perhaps, for those who possess an overestimation of self worth).
  3. Helping your client’s balloons fly free also nurtures a simpatico, trusting relationship with your consulting firm.

On the other hand, you create far, far, more value when you disagree with your clients’ assumptions, preconceptions, and hypotheses.

Disagreeing reveals the gaps in your consulting clients’ understanding, perception or approach. Gaps you fill with higher order replacements. It’s as if you’re popping their weak balloons and offering robust, dirigibles that will float higher and perform better.

Your disagreement is a powerful, Schumpeterian gale that sweeps away your clients’ unsound thinking to make room for a leap in progress.

However, like most destructive forces, disagreeing can be dangerous. Particularly to the health of your consulting firm. A few rules will encourage your clients to love you even when you disagree with them.

Rules of Disagreeability

Be Agreeable While You Disagree

Your friendly face and supportive demeanor will soften the blow when you pop your client’s balloon. Keep your overall tone upbeat and positive, even when you’re pointing out flaws.

Pick Your Battles

Sometimes it’s more efficient and valuable to ignore an issue than to address it.

For instance, if you see a mistake—particularly in approach or action—but your consulting client can’t do anything about it and the consequences of the error are minor, bite your tongue. (Or hide your pin.)

Similarly, if the cost and time to correct a misconception outweigh the harm caused, leave the faulty balloon intact.

Don’t Only (or Usually) Disagree

Mary Poppins instructed us to administer distasteful medicine with a spoonful of sugar. (And you couldn’t pop her umbrella.) As a consultant you can deliver each disagreeable No in a package of five, agreeable Yeses.

When you heavily weight your client communication with confirmations, you achieve two goals: First, you sweeten the conversation, which makes your disagreements easier to swallow. Second, you bolster trust in your opinions. If you say that everything your consulting client believes is wrong, he won’t accept it and he’ll lose faith in you.

Take Down the Concept, but Lift Up the Client

One of the most valuable consulting skills of all is being able to reveal a gap in your client’s thinking, approach, processes, or behavior without making your client feel wrong.

Before you burst one of your client’s balloons, gently separate it (i.e, the idea) from the person. For instance, you may refer to “that” challenge rather than “your” challenge.

Also equip your client with armor to protect his ego from the balloon shrapnel. Three easy forms of ego protection are Shifting Blame (it’s someone else’s fault), Normalization (everyone falls into this trap) and Inevitability (given the circumstances, of course you thought this bowling ball was a balloon).

Avoid Bursting Dreams

You can explode your consulting client’s hypotheses, assumptions, preconceptions, behaviors, approaches and conclusions with impunity. But treat his dreams as precious, goassamer-thin bubbles.

Never forget that the ultimate goal is to help your client achieve his aspirations. While that may require you to skewer a few of his closely-held beliefs, you can always advance his higher-level goals and visions.

What else is important to remember when you’re disagreeing with a client?


19 Comments
  1. Bob Hatcher
    September 19, 2018 at 9:33 am Reply

    I tell my clients that they pay me less for advice, but more for me to ask the tough questions that may not go against the grain or be politically correct. So, disagreeing can be as simple as “Have you thought about …?”

    Bob Hatcher

    • David A. Fields
      October 10, 2018 at 6:58 am Reply

      Outstanding. Sometimes, clients forget that they’re engaging us to ask the tough questions, and a reminder is in order.

      Using questions to gently pry a client’s fingers away from their firmly-held beliefs can be very, very effective. Thank you for highlighting that point, Bob.

  2. Tom Borg
    September 19, 2018 at 12:13 pm Reply

    Good point Bob.
    David, excellent points. I can use this with all my clients.

    • David A. Fields
      October 10, 2018 at 6:55 am Reply

      Cool, Tom. Remember, you can occasionally agree with your clients too. (Just a wild idea I thought I’d toss into the mix.) I always appreciate your comments, Tom.

  3. Susan
    September 19, 2018 at 12:26 pm Reply

    I’ve used normalization and inevitability quite successfully. I’ve found that once you’ve built a strong relationship with the client, you can be a little more disagreeable and curmudgeonly without offending them quite as much – unless their ego is very involved. I do like Bob’s answer above. I’ve also found using stories effective. Everyone loves stories, and after 28 years of consulting, I’ve found that many clients have used similar ideas and interventions. I’ll share the story with them, along with any variables that are similar and different and any difficulties encountered. This effectively removes it from the consultant and the client and puts it’ out there as non-pejorative and not as offensive as it could be. Apart from that, sometimes ideas that are borderline harebrained actually work!

    • David A. Fields
      October 10, 2018 at 6:54 am Reply

      Totally agree. Stories can be a super-effective way to present disagreement.

      Also, not only do harebrained ideas actually work, sometimes clients that disagree with us are actually right. (Imagine that!)

      I appreciate the reminder about using stories, Susan. Very helpful.

  4. Dr Linne Bourget
    September 19, 2018 at 1:04 pm Reply

    As the pioneer in positive strengths-based change leadership, I frame this as wanting the best for them and advocating for that rather than as disagreeing. When I have said to client execs. that if they do what they proposed it will damage their organizations thus I cannot ethically support it, including turning back a Federal contract, they kept working with me for 7, 10 and 14 years, greatly expanding the initial scope of work! Note that first priority is to see deeply and appreciate their strengths and apply those to their bottom lines via 10 application systems…Once they see the rapid great results, they are open to any differences we have and discover they can do more than they ever thought possible.
    Dr. Linne Bourget, M.A., M.B.A., Ph.D.

    • David A. Fields
      October 10, 2018 at 6:51 am Reply

      You’ve provided a great case study of a client valuing disagreement, Linne. As long as the client realizes we are advocates for their success, not for our own opinions, they’re usually pretty cool with us pushing back. Thanks for joining the discussion, Linne.

  5. Adrian Botham
    September 19, 2018 at 3:14 pm Reply

    Common advice I’ve had about this in the past is to use the Feel-Felt-Found sequence to disagree i.e. say something like “I understand how you feel. Other people we’ve worked with who’ve been in a similar position have felt the same way. However, in our experience, we’ve found that works best/better because…” Personally, I’m not a big fan of this as it’s a bit contrived and once you’ve used the sequence with someone or heard it before when someone does it with you, it’s hard to keep using it. However, it does use reflection, empathy, acknowledgement before delivering the alternative viewpoint. It therefore has merit, as long as it’s used sparingly and provides a useful framework to get creative with.

    • David A. Fields
      October 10, 2018 at 6:49 am Reply

      Any approach that feels contrived to you will definitely feel contrived to your client. The feel-felt-found structure is a good reminder that we need to start with empathy. After that reminder, whatever structure you use that’s sincere and thoughtful will work.

      I hadn’t heard that particular sequence before, Adrian, and appreciate you mentioning it.

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