The Heart of a Consultant, the Art of “the Mindset”
Much has been written about the “consulting mindset.” Particularly, the sometimes-enviable grasp that many consultants have on communication, conflict resolution, and problem solving. In many ways, it’s true. One of the hallmarks of a great consultant is their ability to objectively listen, ask the right questions, form trust quickly, and help their clients arrive at the best conclusions. As an objective third party, this is often easier for a consultant. Even the most well-intentioned leader or staffer can get swept up in their passion for their position, their team, and their goals. Yet, the truth is that “the mindset” isn’t always innate; it’s something successful consultants cultivated over a long period of time, by working closely with a wide variety of industries and personalities. You too can develop these skills.
In fact, I was once asked by a large company to put together training for their people, specifically those that have a more consultative role—training teams, for example. Naturally, I was thrilled to do so. Now, I am happily sharing the highlights with you.
The training was divided into four key areas: Communication, Conflict Management, Constructive Inquiry, and Mindset. It drew not only on consulting experience, but also on proven third-party resources, which I’ll link out to.
The ability to communicate at the highest level is often the result of a few key traits, working in concert: perspective, self-discipline, and bravery. There is an excellent book and training series called Fierce Conversations that tackles these effective communication traits, even when they are not intrinsic. The book covers the “Seven Principles of Fierce Conversation;” I’ve summarized a few of the most resonant principles below. Read the complete list here.
- Interrogating reality. I think about this principle often— its applications extend into many aspects of business (as well as one’s personal life), as reality tends to be based on wherever you are standing. Ask questions, be brave, and bridge the truth for everyone by being objective. For example, it could mean that a project owner or leader has certain goals in mind, but their direct reports and managers have very different views. Interrogating Reality would suggest that you work to understand everyone’s point of view so that you can communicate overarching goals, and the necessity of the project, in their own terms. This is a really important step to ensuring everyone feels like they are part of the process, rather than an afterthought.
In the training class, we ran people through a scenario and discussion, where people could bring forth examples from their work or personal lives of misunderstood, or not well communicated, opposing views of reality.
- Obey your instincts. This principle references a subtle psychological method that has a big impact on interpersonal and professional relationships. Listen for emotion in a conversation— when you’re looking for it, it is easy to spot. Acknowledging an emotion holds a lot of power. In fact, customer service organizations teach this to their people— to listen for when somebody sounds upset and to acknowledge that emotion before moving to solve the problem (“I’m so sorry this happened to you, let me see how I can resolve this for you.”). It works so well because it feels validating to have your emotion acknowledged; it disarms conversations and unlocks a freer dialogue.
This concept was a powerful one in the training class. Working in a high-stress, deadline-driven environment had led to “cutting corners” on listening for emotion. When they brought this element back to client interactions, both satisfaction scores and results improved.
- Take responsibility for your emotional wake. Even with the best of intentions, we may lose sight of how our actions impact others. Deadlines, workload, project urgency— each are things that can cause a bit of business tunnel vision. It is critical to finish projects on-budget and on-time, but if at the end of it everyone is so burned out they don’t want to work together anymore, have you really succeeded? Make an effort to recognize and appreciate those people who are along for the ride. And if you do cause distress, a heartfelt apology goes a long way.
Truly, I cannot emphasize this point enough. One of the best compliments I have received was at the end of a nearly year-long project, when one of the stakeholders said, “There were times when things got stressful, but you always diffused the tension with some humor, or found a way to help us get through the rough spots.”
2. CONFLICT MANAGEMENT
No two people and their expectations are the same. Therefore, conflict is inevitable. The issue in business is that the more conflict there is, the harder it becomes to get work done and breed positive sentiment. The Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Model, which has been around for several years, recognizes that conflict is uncomfortable for most of us, and then helps determine the conflict mode that you tend to use by default. By understanding your mode, and the others, you can more readily learn to pivot. The logic of the models helps to undermine your default behavior and gives you a roadmap for how to behave in situations that require resolution.
The Thomas-Kilmann Model describes five Conflict Modes: Competing, Collaborating, Compromising, Avoiding, and Accommodating. A few scenarios in which you can use the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Modes to your conflict resolution advantage:
- When you need to take quick, decisive action. Competing is ideal when swift action is urgent and vital. Competing is considered a “power mode” where the user assertively argues their position. In certain business situations, this could be standing up for what you believe to be right in the spirit of resolving an urgent and pressing need. It’s also very useful if you tend to be an avoider and get taken advantage of as a result.
Choose your situations and deploy competing when you need to be heard. For instance, I used this approach in a situation where a deadline needed to be moved so that a key group of stakeholders could accommodate both the project and a business-critical audit.
- When you need to step away from a situation. Avoiding, by contrast, is very unassertive and likely considered an undesirable behavior; yet, it has entirely reasonable uses in business. For instance, when there is a trivial issue on a project, or there are bigger and more pressing issues, it is wise to leverage avoidance. Essentially, you are opting out of the conflict. By diplomatically eluding an issue, you are able to revisit it at another time, or simply walk away from a situation in which nobody wins. The same can be said for rash decisions. When there are looming deadlines and urgent requests, it’s very tempting to weigh in quickly, but often there are issues that require greater research and investigation. Avoiding (for a while, at least) can yield a more measured and thoughtful response.
I tend to use avoiding when emotions are high, as the intervening time often gives people a different perspective. For example, I once received an email from a stakeholder who was upset about being reminded that they’d missed a deadline. I tabled responding for several hours and then received an apology; because I didn’t react, we were able to get to a resolution amicably and quickly.
- When you want (or need) to learn. Collaborating is considered a tool of both assertiveness and cooperation — the complete opposite of avoiding. This is a really great mode to leverage when you wish to test your own assumptions, or otherwise understand something better about your project or ideas. Reach out to others, share your thoughts, and encourage a dialogue that will help you test your assumptions and land on something that will work for everyone.
I often leverage both the Thomas-Kilmann model and the Fierce Conversation model when I work with clients on conflict resolution tactics. When I’m leading a team or coaching people, I also encourage people to walk and talk through what they’re going to say. The act of talking out the chosen model really helps.
3. CONSTRUCTIVE INQUIRY
A consultative approach is one that asks questions constructively— that observes behavior, personalities, and cultural norms to ask questions in a way that beats emotional responses and gets to what a person needs.
When it comes to questions, there are some terrific tools available. From Fierce Conversations are the Fierce Mineral Rights conversation starter and the Fierce Conversations confrontation model. Each help you piece together how to approach a conversation where asking the right questions, and circumventing negativity, are needed in order to break through to what a person or team needs. In the client training, we spent a lot of time really digging into how the team approaches discovery with clients. We used case studies showing how stopping at the first answer often does not yield the best results if (and more likely, when) the true problem isn’t uncovered. We also walked through some examples using fishbone diagrams and Six Sigma’s 5 Whys approach to encourage familiarity with these ways of thinking.
Sometimes, though, it’s as simple as breaking a habit that won’t allow consultation to happen at all. For instance, the very organization for whom I put this training together was facing a specific challenge. Their internal training group found that various team members who were requesting training were not seeking their opinion or advice, and often the training they were asked to create wasn’t as effective as it could be. When we analyzed their methods, we discovered they were using an intake form for training requests that encompassed several tick boxes, none of which encouraged conversation. In fact, the very first question on the form was “what training format do you want,” with a series of checkbox options. In effect, they had unintentionally made themselves order takers. Simply overhauling this intake form to include “consultation” — in the form of open-ended questions about who the training was for, what it was about, why it was needed — was a huge transformational step toward being perceived as a trusted partner.
A consultative approach constantly challenges the status quo, and courageously investigates the stated problem to uncover how things can be improved. Go beyond information to provide solutions. Understand why you are doing things the way you are; dive in. People tend to get really entrenched by tribal knowledge or even by complacency (which happens more easily than anyone cares to admit). What you might learn in this process is that there is not a good case to be doing what you’re doing, or that there are better options. If so, you can create a pro and con list that helps everyone involved clearly see the options.
Also, make sure you know what question you are solving as you investigate a problem. I was once working with a client where we were spinning up several projects. The company had a project charter template we were leveraging, and yet nowhere on that charter did it reference the business problem. I worked with the team to add this to the charter, and to distill a clear and concise business problem for each project. In truth, this took work. You can imagine that when you’re working with a variety of people, there are competing ideas of what the ultimate problem is. But you can get there; and you need to.
All of the key areas I assembled for training are what create the magic many refer to as the “consulting mindset.” Capture these attributes, practice the concepts to learn the skills, and then add them to your “consulting toolbox” so they are available for situations where you may need them most.