David Maister - Professional Business, Professional Life
David’s ResourcesAbout David
NEW! Browse my materials by topic of interest:StrategyManagingClient RelationsCareersGeneral

Passion, People and Principles

Offering Advice When it’s Not Been Asked For

post # 280 — January 11, 2007 — a Client Relations post

I was digging around in my old “Q&A” files and found this question from 2003:

David, One of my clients’ has become accustomed to operating in crisis mode. They are constantly in reactive mode vs. proactive. I have not been asked to help fix this, my firm is involved in other projects. I feel like I am watching a train crash about to happen. How can I get them to see that reactive mode and crisis is not a normal way of conducting business, when they have not asked for help? Thanks.

Here’s my (modified) reply:

One of my rules is: don’t give your opinion until it’s asked for – it will just be resented. First, you must build a relationship and earn the right to comment. Second, there’s no point commenting to someone who isn’t empowered to change things. So, you must ask “If they were to change this mode of operating, who would have to lead that change? Who is the key decision-maker here?”

By the way, I don’t completely accept your premise that a “reactive mode and crisis is not a normal way of conducting business.” It may not be a good idea, but it’s remarkably common. Mentally, imagine this: you observe that this person in your social circle that you’ve met (not a close friend) is overweight and unfit. You think it’s not healthy to live that way. They haven’t asked your opinion. But you want them to understand that there’s a better way. How would you approach THAT???

You’ll probably have to guess that you are not the first person to point out to them that their are fat and unfit. They’ve heard it before, in all probability. So what’s going to be different about your approach?

(By the way, you wouldn’t tell someone they were ugly and had terrible dress sense, would you? So why would you point out to them they were fat and unfit? Aren’t both equally unkind? Maybe there’s a business equivalent. Some things you just SHOULDN’T point out.)

The first thing I’d observe is that it won’t be the logic of your argument that will prevail. Whatever the process is will mostly be about emotions: creating the desire for the benefits that fitness can bring, helping boost their confidence and courage that, yes, they CAN change, quelling their fears about dropping their past habits, and understanding the group psychodynamics that led to why they operate this way now. You’ll need to be a skilled counselor, psychotherapist and corporate politician to pull it off.

So, to do this well, you have to scheme (at least) WHO, WHEN, WHERE, HOW and WHY.

WHO do you approach? Your current contact? The person causing the problem? The person with the power to solve the problem? The person who’s bearing the brunt of the problem?

WHEN do you approach that person? At the end of you current project (when you have earned some credibility) or as soon as possible?

WHERE do you do it? Ask for a private meeting? Take them out for a beer or a meal to get them away from the office?

HOW do you phrase the words?

And, of course, you have to ask yourself WHY you are doing it. Are you really doing it to help, or do you just want to cross-sell something or develop a follow-on assignment?

Anyone got any advice to offer? What DO you do if you’re working with a client and see things that urgently need change but which they don’t seem to want to tackle? For all of you out there whose firms want you to grow business (or grow “relationships”) this should be an important topic. And, of course, those in the business of giving out marketing advice should join in!


Ken Hedberg said:

A couple of observations:

My (now grown) son taught me an important lesson on advice while a teenager. He used to regularly say, “Stop bugging me, you’re just lecturing!” – a typical teenage sentiment. I finally got the point: Advice given when not requested is indeed nothing more than lecturing. It runs the risk of harming the relationship, and certainly doesn’t help it. Consistent with David’s post, this rule applies in all aspects of our lives, in my view, and not just with our clients.

A related rule I apply is that people want a measure of control over their own actions, and choices are an important tool to grant them control. I use this principle when dealing with subordinates, colleagues, and clients.

Applying these principles to clients takes different forms. For example, when a client requests a proposal, I normally frame it with options and alternatives, including choices that involve using the client’s own staff and resources to reduce costs and effect knowledge transfer. I can imply advice through the structure of the alternatives, but always leave the choice to the client. In approaching situations with an existing client in which I see something ‘needing’ attention that has not been requested, my application of this principle leads me to start by requesting permission to comment on the situation. The act of asking achieves several things, I believe: 1) my client knows that I see something I believe to be important, 2) the client maintains control by having a real choice, and 3) the relationship is normally strengthened, even if only incrementally, by the process of me offering and respecting the choice made.

posted on January 11, 2007

peter vajda said:

More observations…

I see one’s response as being on or between two poles on a continuum…on one end, the “consultant”; on the other, the “coach.” (And this applies to life at work, at home and at play. For me, there is no such thing as compartmentalization.) The difference? Punctuation. The former is all about “periods.” The latter, all about “question marks.” That being said, then my curiosity is about why one chooses to take a particular role.

Whether dealing with, and relating to, colleagues at work, children, spouses or partners at home, or friends on the playing field, what’s “underneath” one’s choice to take the consultant role (i.e., teach, train, tell, fix, educate, shut down, advise, one-up, or correct another from the “I know best.”, or “Why can’t you be more like me?” or other aspect of wanting or needing to come from a place of position, power and control….behaviors which prevent one from being completley present to another and allowing them to have their experience. Connected to these behaviors is the aspect of “judgment” that the other is “bad” or “wrong” in some way, shape or form…judgments which are verbal and/or silent…but judgments (often without knowing the “truth” of the situation), nevertheless.

The coaching perspective allows for empathy, inquiry, curiosity (as opposed to judgment) and allows that what another says or feels is right or true for them, regardles of how I might think they should be, or feel. Through non-judgmental questions, from this place, one can listen on many levels and gain awareness of what another is observing, feeling, needing and/or requesting….and from this perspective, offer support. In this way, too, one does not superimpose one’s own reality on to the reality of another…hijacking the other’s reality or experience.

And, as the Buddhists say, “when the student is ready, the teacher will arrive.” When the “student”, at work, at home or at play is not ready, the “teacher” is most often viewed as interfering, controlling overbearing, micromanaging, bullying…and there are often unintended consequences as a result. The “issue” or “problem’ might be “solved”, but the residuals might be of geater concern or consequence.

So, for me, one’s orientation to one’s self, i.e., “Who do I take my self to be, and why?” (e.g., consulant -coach) is a first question and “How can I best support another so s/he can choose to support him/her self?” is a second.

Finally, with respect to David’s example of the overweight person, a thought. Everyone is in chapter three of their life. No one (read: no one) knows what happened in chapters one and two. To verbally or silently judge the overweight person, the depressed person, the unhappy person, the angry person, the addicted person, the single person…from the place that “I know what’s right for him/her”, “I know what happened in chapter one and two,” so I know what they should/should not do, is just plain egoistic and arrogant…and more often than not projects our own feelings of lack and deficiency on to that other. So, coach-consultant….Who do I take myself to be? and, why?

posted on January 11, 2007

David (Maister) said:

Ken, Peter – I truly LOVE (and subscribe to) your replies and philosophies. They are what my coauthors and I struggled to convey in THE TRUSTED ADVUISOR book.

Peter how would you adapt your language or advice to a professional who responds to you with “Yeah, well, all this Buddhist stuff is OK, but my firm wants me to generate some aditional business. Can you help me see how your perspective and approach will lead to that?”

posted on January 11, 2007

peter vajda said:

David…not sure this helps, but it’s my experience

two recent clients…one a managaing partner in a real-estate, property managing company, the other, an attorney…both of whom spent a fair amount of time complaining about unhappy experiences in their worplaces due to: the economy, unappreciative cients, overwork, stress, difficult relationships with their suport staffs…really coming from a blaming “victim consciuousness” perspective. “Them” “it”, not “me.”

So, in the coaching process, looking at what a more “ideal” workplace would be like, they created scenarios of what would be happening (measurable, observable behaviors) of what their work and workplace would be like if the economy, workload, stress, relationships with support staff were not issues. And, issue by issue, crafted a list of do-ings and be-ings (outcomes) (how they would be feeling during their day, in their work, in their interactions, relating to their support foks…)…and worked with me as to how they might begin to move in the direction of these do-ings and be-ings, in baby steps, beginning at “9:00 Moinday morning.” A six-month process.

A major piece of the work is asking, “Would you be willing to look at how you might get in the way of achieving these goals (in additon to how everything and everyone else is to blame.)”? Having created an alliance and a container of safety where they felt they could be open, honest, and vulnerable, they agreed. Long story short, they began to “see” how their own beliefs and preconceptions, expectations and assumptions about people, about staff, etc., and their ego-driven need to be right all the time, to be in control was sabotaging their relationships with their clients, colleagues and support staff. Not fun stuff, necessarily, but they were willing to challenge their assusmptions, look at and manage their egos, and be “conscious” of how they were driving the heretofore unpleasantness of their life at work. For example, asking questions, learning how to listen, really listen, making an effort to trust others’ opinions/positions, really “collaborating” with clients, and consciously working at seeing every encounter, every interaction and relationship, every day, as a “fresh” encounter with no “history or “story” behind it, and understanding that folks are doing their best (That no one gets up in the morning and says, “I’m going to be a jerk today.”) supported them to gain a new perspective on who they were and how they were at work and how sometimes they “got in the way”. Their client lists have grown, the feedback (internal and external) they receive is more positive, their referrals have increased and they are just plain happier in their lives at work (short story and answer.) Indirectly, they came to see that they were part of the issue…that it’s not always “it, her, them.” They had the strength and courage, after some time, to “know thyself” and from that place view their life at work and their clients as “humans”. Additional business? Yes. The Buddhist stuff? Yes (but not in so many words).

posted on January 11, 2007

Wally Bock said:

I am now 60 1/2 years old. I fully subcribe to the “don’t give advice until it’s asked for” rule. Alas, it was not always so.

For far too long I believed that my clients hired me to speak the truth to them no matter what. They DO want the truth, but they want it at a time when they’re willing to hear and in a way that is helpful.

As others have said, relationships are key. A client I’ve had for more than a quarter century often asks me to ferret out the truth that he’s worried might be hiding out there. Another client, a former military officer, asks me to be his intelligence department. But I had to have a relationship with both of them before they asked.

The best tool I’ve found for warning clients that the “Here be monsters” legend on the map may be true is to tell them stories, in a casual way, of other companies who’ve been eaten by the monsters. Sometimes it works.

posted on January 11, 2007

Maureen Sharib said:

When you feel yourself thinking or about to say the words, “I don’t want to hurt your feelings BUT…” STOP. Don’t go any further.

posted on January 12, 2007

Dennis Howlett said:

I don’t know whether it’s the same in the US as it is in the UK but here, men in particular are so wound up tight they might as well be wearing suits of armour as suits of clothes.

In the morning you can almost hear the clank of metal as each lifts their visor and hails their partners: ‘Good morning Sir Galahad,’ or some such before clamping said visor shut again as they go in to do battle with whatever demons are out there lurking.

Which makes me wonder whether a metaphorical slap over the head with the intellectual equivalent of a mace might be equally effective and take far less time?

I jest but I hope you see the point. There is a huge amount of pride gets in the way and busting past that is tough work. I think it’s important to realise then that when we’re attempting to deal with these situations, we don’t fall into the trap of becoming surrogate therapists.

For me, it comes down to a simple conversation where it is legitimate to say something like: “I sense there are issues here. If I’m right, then is there anything I can do to help? Otherwise I’ll shut up and bid you good day.” That usually elicits the response: “What do you mean” to which the only answer I know works is: “Do you really want to know?” Everyone has a get of jail free card and everyone knows the rules of engagement.

This is so vitally important IMO because once you go down that road you’ve been given permission to speak the truth. That doesn’t have to be a blunt instrument but I take the view that a short time in agony is better than a long drawn out illness.

At the same time, it doesn’t mean I have to be a heartless asshole. I can still be compassionate without allowing the person to drift.

IMO and with a European flavour.

posted on January 12, 2007

Bryan I. Schwartz said:

I think this is much to do about nothing. People are so wound up in being politically correct we are no longer allowed to help people.

I am a managing partner of a service firm. If people have no idea how to dress and everyone is making fun of them behind their back, let them know that. Then, if you care about them and they are desirous of improving themselves, take them to a store, introduce them to someone who can help them and be there to support them when the well qualified clerk tells them that purple shirt is just not a good look with that pink tie, even if your spouse thinks it is an “interesting look”. When you spend your time trying to help peopl and walk through a solution with them, it is more than just words that hurt their feelings.

The signs are often clear that people are screaming for help, they do not have the resources to turn themselves around and you have to decide whether you care enough to say something. Yes, you have to risk that they will be offended. They will thank you later and appreciate how difficult it was for you to tell them about this weakness for bad fashion. This is true about any subject. Caring about others often puts you in a vulnerable position. If you cannot stand the heat in the kitchen, hold back so you can be politically correct and not help people you occupy the planet with.

If they do not care about improving personally, I would not push it. It will not matter anyway. I think you can tell who would want to know and who does not.

posted on January 15, 2007

Adrian G. said:

Maybe we have to differentiate a little to whom we try to give advice. It is my little brother or my big brother? I think when the “targeted” person is somehow higher profile than you is even more “challenging”. Did you try to give unasked piece of advice to your boss? He might say that he needs feedback, but actually, he may want you to agree, not to comment (because this way you will be an agent of change …). And I don’t say that is bad intentions. Only, like this we are “programmed”.

So, asked advice might be actually unasked advice! How do you proceed?


posted on January 24, 2007

Thomas L. said:

As about me I usually say what i think directly and if a person doesn’t want to take an advice then noone could make him or her take it IMO

posted on May 15, 2007

Norah said:

Too many things in business depend on the personality of a bisinessman, that’s a pity

posted on May 21, 2007

Richard Xie said:

Hi, all — I am writing an article about giving advice, specifically about the differences in the rules of giving advices in English and Chinese. I surfed on the internet but found little information. Is there anyone who could provide me with more information on this topic?




posted on August 3, 2007