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Passion, People and Principles

They Just Don’t Get It!

post # 69 — May 6, 2006 — a Careers, Client Relations post

Early on in my consulting career, I remember having a hard day with clients and coming home to my wife, saying: “Those stupid clients just didn’t get it.” My wife, very gently, said “You mean that today, just today, you weren’t able to help them understand?”

My first instinct was to throw something at her, but my second instinct was to realize she was right. The lack of understanding might not have been my fault, but it was certainly my responsibility to make sure I was being understood.

This isn’t a moral point, but one of simple survival. If clients don’t hire me because they are too ill-informed to recognize the brilliance of my insight, it’s me that loses the job. If I’m trying to advise them to do something and they just won’t take my advice, they are going to view me as less than completely helpful. It may be their fault, but it’s my problem.

I get questions about this all the time. Everyone has stories of “dumb” clients or people who just won’t listen or cooperate or let you do the job you were hired to do. And it’s so easy (since it’s so often the truth) to lay the blame on the other person and throw your hands up in despair. It’s so unfair, we think, that we have to work at being understood when it’s their fault.

The crucial first step – taking ownership and responsibility when you feel that you are not being well understood – is a huge challenge for most of us, personally and professionally. How often have you had a disagreement with a family member, only to give up in frustration when they “just won’t listen to you” or “see your point of view?”

Yet only by taking responsibility for the effectiveness of our communications can we obtain the influence or the results that we want. We have to stop attributing blame, and start viewing the situation as a problem to be solved. We have to learn to get people to engage with us, not just take opposing sides.

We have to ask questions like “Why does this person believe what they believe now?” “Why is it in their interest to defend the point of view that they are making?” As Steven Covey says, one of the keys to effectiveness is “Striving more to understand, and less to be understood.”

Note the paradox here. The better you are at understanding the other person, the clearer it will be as to how you might engage them in conversation, have a chance of being understood, and lead them to a different conclusion. Striving first to understand is not (just) a moral or social point, but good pragmatic advice.

Next, it’s necessary to make the obvious point that understanding something yourself is one level of accomplishment, but being good at helping someone untrained in your field to understand it is another. This requires a whole new set of skills.

I have a client who always says to me “Explain it to me as if I were a six-year old.” He doesn’t mean it quite that literally, but it’s a helpful reminder that what he wants from me is not just answers but understanding. The skill of helping people understand complex issues is not that common among highly trained, technically qualified people.

And as we know, a free market rewards what is scarce, not necessarily what is inherently valuable. A superior ability to help a client understand your field may be a real point of differentiation, as an individual or as a company.

Of course, this applies to all our relationships, not just those with clients. If your administrative assistant doesn’t fully understand what you want, you won’t get back what you want. If your boss doesn’t understand what you’ve done, you haven’t done it.

Learning to communicate so that people understand you better is a vastly neglected skill.


Martin Bamford said:

My colleague is an ex-teacher and she has this rare ability to explain technical concepts in simple language. More importantly, she is able to ensure that she is understood. I have now started to use her approach when meeting with new clients for the first time. She always starts new client meetings by explaining that there are no stupid questions, only points that we have failed to explain properly. Giving the client the permission to interupt and ask questions (no matter how silly they might seem) is an essential part of our service.

posted on May 7, 2006

David (Maister) said:

I do worry that saying, out loud, “there are no stupid questions” runs the risk of coming across as a little pompous and patronizing.

The real question to be addressed is how you can handle yourself so that you actually make it very easy for people to ask questions, clarify and disagree. What are the approaches that work here?

One habit a teacher of mine always had was that he asked a lot of specific, guided questions (such as “If what we’ve just said is true, can you think of an implication?”) he didn’t just say “What do you think?” or “Any questions?” He worked hard at making the converstaion an exrecize in joint reasoning, as if you were always peers in solving a problem.

posted on May 9, 2006

Lee Iwan said:

Congratulations, this post hit the nail on the head for me, and reminds me of every person I’ve worked for or with.

“taking ownership and responsibility when you feel that you are not being well understood”…..I’ve missed this point over and over for years.

Only now as my wisdom increases and am I open to real self-evaluation, do statements like this make sense.

Bravo….this idea should be required reading for anyone involved in sales, management and life in general!

posted on May 18, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Thanks, Lee. Appreciation is always appreciated!

posted on May 18, 2006

Donis W. Ford said:

…and in a multi-generational workplace making

“learning to communicate so that people understand you better”

as a shared goal, it seems to me atleast, a challenge.

posted on October 13, 2006