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Influencer QA

Offering Advice Without Causing Offense

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Joseph Grenny

Joseph Grenny is coauthor of four bestselling books, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.


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Influencer

QDear Crucial Skills,

I often find that I, as a consultant, am brought in as an expert, but as I attempt to guide clients toward a different way of thinking or problem-solving, they take it as a threat to how they currently do things. A power struggle ensues because they think my recommendations are an attempt to change them. Isn’t that what they hired me to do?

How can I get them to understand that my recommendations are meant to help, that we are heading toward the same goals, and that they hired me to help them fix something that isn’t working? How should I respond when someone asks for my advice then gets offended when I give suggestions?

Signed,
Trying to Help

A Dear Trying,

You’ve come to the right guy! After years of answering questions, I finally get someone asking me about consulting! Thank you, thank you.

In addition to the ideas I’ll share below, I encourage you to read the reader comments below my response. I know many of our 169,000+ subscribers are consultants (internal or external), so I hope they’ll share a boatload of wisdom as well.

So how can you increase the chance that your ultimate recommendations will be seen as helpful thoughts rather than annoying criticisms? Here are a few practices I use:

Contract up front for commitment from the real leaders. When you’re contracting for the work, be sure you’re reporting to a group that wants change. Often, at the front end of a project, I talk with a senior person who is motivated to lead change, but as things progress the work gets delegated to those with more parochial agendas. I’ve learned that I have more influence before I promise to take on a project. After that, you begin to get consumed within the system that everyone else gets stifled by. So, I take advantage of that “influence window” to contract with the real leaders of change for the amount of time and access I will need in order to accomplish the result they are asking of me. Then I hold them to it.

Clarify and document the mission. I’ve found that in longer-term projects you can easily get mission drift—especially in my work. Leaders say, “We want to change the culture.” With a charter a mile wide like “changing culture,” you’re bound to get people who criticize most anything you do—as it doesn’t match their image of what these vague “results” mean. I am very careful to ask leaders up front to clearly articulate, publish, and document the mission. What behaviors are you trying to change? Why do you want them to change? What results will that produce? How will we measure success? If I’m sloppy about clarifying, documenting, and socializing the results at the front end, it’s easy for people to take offense or disagree with what we ultimately produce.

Honor what’s working before talking about change. In Crucial Conversations, we teach a skill called contrasting. Essentially, we teach people to avoid giving unnecessary offense by helping others understand not just what you mean but also what you don’t mean. When someone like you or I comes in spouting off about change, it’s easy for people to feel like their important contributions are about to be lambasted. That’s not your intention. You aren’t trying to show disrespect for the thousand positive things that are working well. You’re trying to offer ideas for how to improve a dozen or so things that aren’t.

Be sure to explicitly acknowledge best practices that are working well as a way of contrasting to ensure you maintain a sense of mutual respect and mutual purpose with those who have created what you are criticizing. If you sincerely acknowledge what’s working, you make it easier for them to see that your motive is to help, not just to make yourself look like the only smart person in the room.

Build motivation by calibrating to their ability. This is a tricky one. You want to be sure you’re honest about what needs to change, but if your recommendations seem overwhelming, even well-intended leaders will lose motivation to consider them. You have to calibrate your recommendations to their ability to absorb them. Sometimes their rejection of your proposals is a reflection of your failure to present them in a hopeful way rather than an overwhelming concern that leads to more work.

Involve them in the journey. I left this one for last because it’s one I want you to remember. As I said in the previous suggestion, your job is not just to offer right-headed ideas, but to do so in a way that builds motivation to address them. The best way to do this is to involve your clients in the discovery process. If you do too much of the diagnosis with little or no involvement on their part, then you’ll be left to use verbal persuasion—PowerPoint presentations filled with sterling logic and compelling data—to make your case. And as we teach in Influencer, verbal persuasion is the least effective tool you can use. Direct experience is the best.

When VitalSmarts conducts assessments, we never do interviews without partnering with the leaders who will be responsible to implement findings. We know that having them hear key concerns firsthand affects them emotionally in a way PowerPoint never can. Be sure your consulting process builds motivation along the way and you’re less likely to be surprised by resistance at the end.

Best wishes,
Joseph

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Joseph Grenny

Joseph Grenny is a New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for business performance. For thirty years, Joseph has delivered engaging keynotes at major conferences including the HSM World Business Forum at Radio City Music Hall. Joseph’s work has been translated into twenty-eight languages, is available in thirty-six countries, and has generated results for three hundred of the Fortune 500. read more

10 thoughts on “Offering Advice Without Causing Offense”

  1. Thanks for this great question and thorough response. I can see right away some things I am not doing that I must implement: While I anticipate misunderstandings, I forget to offer a contrasting statement. I must get in this habit! I think I often feel too rushed, but clearly it is worth the time.

    Also, I agree that offering results after conducting my analysis, while providing that “wow, great job” response, does not result in long lasting change as does including the client in the analysis process. They own the answers, so they use them to implement change.

    Thanks again. Love the newsletter,
    Illysa

  2. The comments on VitalSmarts are always interesting, and specifically the point that Direct Experience is the best persuasive technique. I plan to share this article with my networks. Chris

  3. I have a different perspective on consultants (I am one) and other professionals whose jobs are to give advice. I say this same thing to my lawyer, CPA, and doctor.
    I pay them for their advice, not to make my decisions for me. Given their areas of expertise, they will have more knowledge and a different perspective on my challenge at hand. I pay them for that advice because armed with it along with other information, I am then able to make a better decision than I could on my own. But, and this is a big but, they should not be offended or frustrated if my final decision does not go the same way they advised. Each is my advisor, not my manager, and I pay them to assist me, not to direct me.

    The same can be said for consultants in general, in my opinion. Unless they are paid based on hard results (e.g. increased sales volume), they should present their professional advice, let the client make the decision, and then help the client succeed with whatever decision he made. The consultant can take satisfaction in knowing that it was a better thought out decision as a result of his/her input.

  4. This is a “Mission Critical” issue. You, as a change agent must access if the client really desires change or merely wants to do a program to appease the discontent. They can say they tried it and “in our organization, it just did not work.” Therefore status quo will be retained. Anytime you endeavor to bring change and leverage a competitive advantage, you are in a project. Working with several people, with different goals and viewpoints to create a new way to do something.

    If this is true, then effective Project Management skills are required. Most projects fail because no clear, measurable outcomes and exclusions are captured upfront in a document. This must be signed by the top level decision maker and any changes must be OK’d. With this, a clear direction and filter now exist for implementation. It is a document, not you or the resistant employee that is in charge. Take it up to the signing person for a decision if needed.

    As the project proceeds, discoveries are made and the document may need to be modified and resigned. In the end, the outcomes can be measured and compared to the expectations.

    I have found that this approach upfront, will separate those who want and expect change from those who have hidden objectives. We do not go forward when we can not establish clear measurable outcomes. There is an underlying Story, the Real Story (Crucial Conversations) below the surface. Much success.

  5. Great article! I agree with everything, and with Kit’s comment about the client owning the decision. As consultant, I see my #1 job is to influence the client to achieve the overall results they want to achieve. It’s up to them to implement, take action on their decisions. And I can help by influencing that process as well. I find questions are my most powerful tool here; when the client comes up with the answer themselves. they are much more likely to own the decision and implementation process.

    One thing I would add to the notion of not overwhelming the client with a huge list of things to do, is to help them identify (recommend, collaboratively identify, etc.) the key step or steps they can implement first. I find it especially helpful to ask: what’s the one thing you can do right now that will make the biggest difference (and ideally leverage implementation of the other key steps). The faster they can see a result at the outset the better, and this creates momentum to move forward with the other steps.

    My two cents.

  6. I’m in an organization that faces the need to change. I’m a strong believer that experience is overwhelmingly more effective than blah, blah, blah, but I have a better sense of how to do that one-on-one than I do at an organization level. What approaches have you used to help people accept the change through experience?

    For example, the need to expand geographically in order to take advantage of other job markets. There’s fear that this means the old location is going to be closed. Probably a feeling of loss of control, no longer being “top dog.” A resistance to the change in the work environment. Communicating via electrons vs. walking next door is hard. The sense of community changes. Hard stuff.

    I keep imagining massive role-playing exercises….Any thoughts?

  7. I found the advice in Influencers about “Motivational Interviewing” helpful. The model is used most often in the health professions now but I think it can help in almost any realm where you’re trying to motivate other people and see what their level of commitment is.

  8. @Elizabeth Richards
    Hi Elizabeth,

    You have a great idea here — if you want people to commit to a change effort, they need experiences, not lectures. Role playing exercises may be good, but take care to ensure they’re well-designed before and well-briefed afterward or they can cause more problems.

    One thing I’d suggest is that people need to both experience the reasons behind the change effort and the effects of the change effort — they need to feel pain in the status quo to want to change, and they need to feel relief in the new state to want that change to lead there.

    May I recommend you set up some small, low-risk experiments with the change effort you seek — choose things that are likely to show positive results quickly. Research shows that early wins can help a team become motivated toward a goal.

    In your case, you are thinking of expanding geographically. There are many small ways to do this that don’t require the opening of a field office, which can seem like too much of an investment of money and time right now. Options include: partnering with an organization in the location in which you are interested to do some small amount of the work you do; hiring contractors in that location; opening a small sales satellite office there; licensing an existing product and using your own sales structure to sell it; and more.

    While you are putting your toes in these geographic waters, you may want to acquire technology that will enable your team to feel close to the operations that will be now far away, such as online meeting tools and web-based information-management systems. Be sure to create pages for staff interaction, such as “who we are” pages with pictures, birth dates, etc. These help with the “I can’t walk next door” issues as people see their colleagues as real people; feelings upon which trust can build.

    Just some ideas; hope they help.

    Best of luck,
    Illysa

  9. Hello to you all,

    I am reading the newsletter in Holland every week and again I am very happy with the start question from ‘trying to help’ and the great answer form Joseph. I can also see what I can do better as a HRM Advisor. I tend to forget the respect for that what works, because I assume everybody is already aware of that. So I skip that part and dive immediately into the possibilities of change. And then I think ‘hey, where are the others?’. So, thanks again, I will practise and learn in order to improve this skill.

    Best regards, Martiene

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