To display knowledge and use of the following ten consulting techniques:
- Paying attention to the context of the meeting
- Being aware of nonverbal signals
- Empowering the client
- Being open to the unpredictable
- Listening with the whole of yourself
- Talking simply and clearly
- Asking and answering questions effectively
- Dealing with resistance to change
- Building a resolution
- Giving and inviting feedback on the process
You may be assigned to work with a Certified Business Consultant (Mentor) to complete this Module. Upon completion, the Center Director will ensure that you have accomplished the following tasks by signing the Training Checklist.
- Read Module 3, Consulting Techniques, in its entirety
- Compete the Module 3 Exam Questions
While technical expertise is one critical element of a Business Consultant’s ability to assist Clients, knowing and using proper consulting techniques is the other. A Business Consultant who lacks good consulting skills will be unable to transfer his/her knowledge and provide proper guidance to Clients.
In order to be effective, a CBC must be all of the following:
- An active listener: Active listening means concentrating fully on what is being said, not only to understand the content of what is being said, but also to perceive what is not being verbalized. Active listening is the first step in understanding and defining the Client’s concerns.
- A person who inspires feelings of trust, credibility and confidence: Trust is gained when the CBC treats the Client with respect and demonstrates that he/she has the Client’s best interests at heart. The CBC must be someone who will attempt to understand – not judge – the client. When Clients trust the CBC, they are more likely to risk sharing their concerns and problems openly.
- A person who is able to see problems and solutions from the Client’s point of view: The CBC must be someone who can project themselves into the situation faced by the Client. When the CBC is empathetic, he/she will be better able to help the Client understand the issues that need to be faced and potential solutions required.
- A person who will help Clients develop a step-by-step course of action that is reasonable, acceptable and within the Client’s ability to accomplish
- A person who believes that consulting is a supportive role and gives Clients the insight, tools and support they need to identify and solve problems on their own without attempting to solve problems for them
The following edited article is reprinted with permission from the Small Business Forum, The Journal of the Association of Small Business Development Centers.
The “Ten Guidelines for Effective Consulting” by Paul Nash, Ed.D and Frederick P. Nader offers support to SBDC consultants by presenting ten basic guidelines for effective consulting.
The consulting philosophy underlying these guidelines is based upon seven deeply held assumptions about human nature, democracy and adult learning. They include the following:
- Consulting implies change, and change often stimulates resistance.
- Adults learn best by participating actively in the learning process.
- People have the capacity to solve their own problems if appropriately supported.
- There is an inherent human drive towards health and the creative resolution of conflict.
- Attentive and caring listening can help people to grow in their capacity to manage their lives effectively.
- In a democratic value system, people should be valued and respected. That is, they should not be manipulated or indoctrinated in ways that inhibit their freedom and personal power.
- The consulting relationship should result in increased empowerment of the client.
The following are the ten guidelines for effective consulting:
By context, we mean all that precedes, surrounds and influences the process and outcomes of the encounter between the consultants and the clients. This may include different elements such as the expectations of the client, time of day, room temperature, lighting, seating, etc.
As a consultant, take all available means to make the physical conditions as comfortable as possible without being distracting or conducive to drowsiness. Favorable outcomes are more likely in an environment that is conducive to learning. Remember, first impressions are powerful. Your appearance, manner, welcome and control of the physical setting can create an atmosphere in which your clients feel comfortable, confident and relaxed.
Much communication occurs on a nonverbal level. The way we walk, move our bodies, gesture, change posture, twist or slouch in our seats, grimace, frown, smile and otherwise express ourselves, are all revealing.
If the nonverbal message you are receiving seems both ambiguous and important to the matter under discussion, test your hypothesis by asking the client for clarification. For example, you might say, “You seem to be confused about that. Am I correct?” Or, “This topic seems to make you uncomfortable. Is that right?” Don’t be sidetracked by an extended analysis of “feelings.” Instead, check out your assumptions quickly and in a non-threatening way, and then move on.
The consulting relationship should be based upon the belief that your clients, given the appropriate support, have the capacity to solve their own problems. This is a belief with powerful consequences, for it means that the solution lies within your clients, not within you as the consultant.
Empower your clients, instead of taking power from them. The most common fault of inexperienced or unskilled consultants is to take the problems (and power) away from the clients by solving them. Consultants may mistakenly assume that they know the problem, or have “been there before,” or “experienced something exactly like it.” You do not know the problem; you know only that tiny aspect of the problem that the client has chosen to share with you. You have not been in the same situation, for you are not the client. We each have our own unique background, strengths, limitations, aspirations – all of which affect both our view of our situation and our capacity to act upon it.
So, what can you say or do that is helpful? Express your confidence in your clients’ ability to solve the problems themselves. Ask questions that encourage them to analyze the situation, to express their feelings and thoughts. Get them to begin to develop their own solutions.
You must be open to change and persuasion. This is not possible if you approach the interaction in the spirit of the traditional missionary, seeking the conversion of the other from a base of absolute certainty about the rightness of your own position. The “missionary” or “salesman” is far from the consultant model that works effectively with adult clients. You should seek to be a catalyst, who strives to collaborate with clients to bring forth the ideas or proposals or solutions.
You should not have a “doctrine” or “package” that you want to “sell” to the clients. Regard them as the experts regarding the problems and their solutions. Your expertise lies in your skills in the process of the encounter and in the quality of your interaction.
Listening is both the most important and the most difficult part of the consulting encounter. It is important because caring and attentive consultants can release the clients’ ability to solve the problems. Clients often experience a clarification of thought and feeling by talking with a sympathetic listener. Problem solving is enhanced by discussion of the problem with a focused, neutral person who pays careful attention and reflects the client’s thoughts and feelings in appropriate ways.
Effective listening involves being focused and concentrated with the whole of yourself available. Have you ever tried to talk with someone who was going through the mail while you spoke? Chances are you felt shut out.
Good listening requires you not only to be attentive to the clients’ words, but also to try to gauge the feelings behind their words, using all available clues of body, gestures, tone, manner and mood.
Effective listening is a very active process. As a consultant, you should accompany your clients every step of the way. Active listening means reflecting back to the clients what they say in such a way that it’s meaning becomes clear to them – often for the first time. You do this by paraphrasing or summarizing their remarks and feeding them back to them. For example, “So, what you seem to be saying is,” or “In other words, what you want is, ” or “Let me see if I understand your intention…”
Put your assumptions or hypotheses about their wishes, hopes, fears and plans into your own words and check whether you’re on track or not. The process of hearing you state what they are trying to say can be a wonderfully clarifying and revealing experience. They may never have done this before, and the beneficial effects of your reflecting and clarifying can be startling.
What do you say to your client? Listening is the most important part of the consulting encounter, but speaking clearly also matters. You need to express yourself in a non-threatening way, so that your clients can remain open to what you suggest, and perhaps be influenced by it.
Help your clients clarify their intentions. Do this by reflecting back to them possible inconsistencies or internal contradictions in what they are proposing or seeking. Help them to explore possible areas of conflict, thereby moving them to deeper levels of feeling and belief.
When you talk, speak clearly and simply. Avoid all jargon, technical or esoteric language and convoluted arguments. Estimate your clients’ level of education and try to match their level of preferred discourse, without being patronizing.
Do not try to impress your clients by your erudition, expertise or authority. You are not there to impress, but to help. It does not help to be threatening in any way. Your approach should be supportive, affirmative and optimistic.
It is a major communication error to assume that what has been spoken has been heard. Don\’t make that error. Instead, speak briefly. Make a simple point. The wait for or invite reaction, questions and comments. Ask your clients to state in their own words what they heard you say, especially if it is an important or summarizing point. Then, in light of the clients’ reaction, you can continue.
One of the most common activities in the consulting encounter is asking and answering questions. This is a very important mode of communication, and it deserves special attention.
Questions are customarily misused and overused in consulting. Be aware of why you are asking the client a particular question. What is your underlying purpose?
There is a genuine place for good questions in the consulting situation. Through sensitive questioning, you can link your clients\’ present problems or dilemmas with past situations and contextual conditions affecting the present. Such questioning involves honest and real questions. Real questions are those to which you don\’t already know the correct answer.
There are many forms of inappropriate questions. Don’t ask questions that are disguised statements; make the statement instead. For example, “Do you really believe that…?” or “How can you say that…?” or “Do you know how many times I have had to answer that question?” These are not helpful questions. They are self-protective disguised statements. They tend to put your clients on the defensive and increase your discomfort.
You, in turn, will be asked questions by your clients. Some of their questions will be attempts to find out your credentials. Can they trust you? What experience do you bring to the situation? It is best to answer simply, honestly, briefly, and non-defensively. Don’t go into a lengthy personal history, but recognize that the success of the meeting will depend partly on your clients’ confidence in you. Be prepared to state succinctly, if asked, your background and experience.
Other client questions may attempt to put you into the position of guru or problem-solver by asking you for “solutions” to their problems. You must take care to avoid this trap, for to respond as they wish merely increases their dependency (which may be a major part of their problem) and does nothing to empower them for future success. Do not appear rejecting or cold. But gently turn the question back to them by asking them what solutions they have already tried. Did their plans work? If not, do they know why? What other alternatives are there? You must have your own hypotheses or suggestions, but it is wise to hold these back for a summary statement.
As you move through the consulting process, you will normally travel from exploration, through clarification, to resolution (partial or complete), and to a plan of action based upon the new insights and resolution. You should be clear that, once your clients begin to consider action, they are facing the need for change. Recognize that any prospective change may appear threatening and may result in resistance.
Resistance to change may include:
-Inconvenience: “I’ve already studied the field – don’t upset me with new data”. Often clients will come to you looking for validation rather than a business consultation.
- Sunk costs: “I’ve put so much time and money into this that I can’t change now.”
- The client simply disagrees with your assessment of the situation and may value some things differently.
- The client has a low tolerance for change and ambiguity.
- The client may not trust you.
- The clients are afraid to change because the new is unknown, or they may not have the new skills necessary for success or it may represent a loss of control
It is essential for you, as the consultant, to understand resistance and to manage it completely. The steps to success in this endeavor are:
- Anticipate resistance: Change always generates resistance. Don’t be surprised or dismayed by its appearance.
- Recognize and explore it in a non-threatening way with your clients. Don’t use pejorative labeling, such as stubbornness, naïveté and mental confusion. Such labeling will lead your clients away because they will think you’re not listening to what’s really going on.
Welcome resistance and use it in a creative way. Demonstrate to your clients that you are in fact listening, that you understand their aspirations, doubts and fears. Express confidence in their ability to move beyond the state of resistance to creative action on the other side.
One of the most exciting, and perhaps the most satisfying, phases of the consulting encounter is building a resolution of the client’s issues. This resolution may be a solution to their presented problem. Or, it may be the clarification of where the clients should go from here.
The satisfaction in this building phase often comes from the experience of working with your clients in an act of invention. To build means to see the potentially creative part in the other’s contribution, to relate one’s own contributions to it, and to add to it in such a way that something new emerges that neither person could have created alone. This synergy or collaborative creativity is what makes the consulting encounter worthwhile and important.
The atmosphere that best motivates people to think creatively is one in which there is real listening, openness, trust, constructive feedback, and free speculation. Ask “What if…?” questions. Play around with ideas. Reverse direction. Stretch the rules. Rephrase the problem. Postpone closure until you and your clients are ready for a resolution. Don’t let your clients evade essential difficulties, but don’t assault them with such difficulties so brutally that their energy and motivation flag. A sensitive and supportive consultant can help to moderate the influence of a client’s overactive superego that demands perfection and the “one best way” to solve a problem. Maintain a consistently positive belief in the client’s ability to arrive at a satisfactory outcome.
Avoid the indoctrinating approach that says, “This will be good for you, and you should do it.” Instead, try the more liberating and self-disclosing approach that suggests, “This has worked for me. You might want to look into it, bearing in mind that your situation is unique.” As consultant, you should not impose your personal values on your clients. But you need not hesitate to disclose your own values, as long as the timing and manner of your disclosure do not close down or discourage a free exploration of options.
Conclude the consulting session or sessions by inviting your clients to give you feedback on your handling of the process. Ask them whether the process was helpful. If they answer affirmatively but generally, ask them if anything was particularly useful. Inquire if anything happened that was difficult or awkward or unhelpful. Again, invite specificity. Ask them if there were any matters they would like to have covered but did not, or what they would like to pursue in the future. Encourage them to think concretely about the next steps, including names, dates, and places. Small, specific goals are more achievable than global, abstract ones.
Above all, retain a sense of humor and modesty about your efforts. Acknowledge your own limits and don’t be hard on yourself. A sense of humor is the ability of being able to perceive the oddity and even absurdity of our human situation, the comic that is the other side of the tragic in life. It prevents us from taking ourselves too seriously. It helps us to avoid an attitude of arrogance about our own powers and responsibilities. It enables us to enjoy the process in the present and to anticipate the next encounter with zest.
At 8:00 sharp on Monday morning, the Center’s phone begins to ring, signaling the beginning of another busy week at the SBDC. As you sip your coffee, you overhear the administrative assistant beginning to have a hard time accommodating the caller. It sounds as if the caller is refusing to listen to your administrative assistant’s explanations. Since there are not any other Business Consultants in yet who can take the ‘problem caller’ off the administrative assistant’s hands, you put your coffee down and signal to her to transfer the call to you.
The client is already angry because the administrative assistant asked him what kind of help he needed instead of putting him through to you right away. He claims the president of your host institution is his best friend, so even though you doubt it, you decide to handle him with care.
He has invented a device that will conserve the energy required to run various kinds of machinery and wants to meet with you right away. He knows he can sell it to the government and to Japan and to Germany. When he went to see his banker she made him very angry because she told him the bank required a business plan. Now he wants to talk to you about this “business plan thing”. Because of his apparent tendency to anger easily, you set an appointment for tomorrow.
When the client comes in for his appointment you ask for more information about his invention you find you are having a hard time understanding his ideas as he seems to be talking in circles and does not explain himself well. However, you soon become impressed with the product. While you are a generalist and do not often work with inventors, you feel that the product has real potential, seems it could be easily marketed, and can probably be patented.
You explain the need for a business plan. Unfortunately, when you begin to explain how to write the plan, it become apparent that the client is losing interest. He says that he is too busy, he is not good at writing, he does not explain things well on paper, and a dozen more reasons. He states that since you know so much about these things, it would be easier for everyone if you wrote it. You explain that as the business owner, it is very important that he be the author of the plan. He then gives you a wink and says that he is willing to pay quite well to write it for him.