Peter Block is one of my favorite authors right now. He is a deep dude, and that’s why I like him. He writes about consulting and other business related topics, but he approaches these subjects from the point of view of why things happen in business (instead of what or how).
I’m working through his book Flawless Consulting, and it is a solid book for anyone that wants to consult, coach or sell knowledge. If you are a provider of credence services (see credence vs. experiential vs. search services), then Block will help you offer your services that result in more transformation. Chapter 8 in Flawless Consulting is related to the resistance we get from our customers. It’s a fascinating take on a subject I rarely think about, or even notice while it is happening. Here is a quote:
The key to understanding the nature of resistance is to realize that it is a reaction to an emotional process taking place within the client. It is not a reflection of the conversation we are having with the client on an objective, logical, rational level. Resistance is a predictable, natural reaction against the process of being helped and against the process of having to face up to difficult organizational problems. Resistance then is not only predictable and natural; it is a necessary part of the learning process. Block, Flawless Consulting, p 129
As a business coach, I deal with resistance all the time. But I’ve never looked at resistance from this point of view. I have always viewed resistance as something to overcome, or help the client subdue in the process. But resistance is actually a sign that we are touching on the issues that need to be addressed. We are in the right place.
Here are some takeaways from my new found learning on resistance:
1. It’s not about me. My client’s resistance is not about me. They are not resisting me, but the process of change and it’s inconvenience. This is natural. We all do this because change is disruptive and asks some heavy things of us. I’m learning not to take it personally.
2. It’s emotional. It’s hard for a client to even ask for help. Especially in the process of consulting, where the client has potentially tried many things before calling you as the expert. Seeking your services is emotional, not technical. I’m learning not to answer resistance with technical, logical answers. Instead, asking questions that allow the client to state how they feel is cathartic and empathetic for them. The client feels heard and understood. Do you want the client to share their emotions so you can move onto transformation? Then share your emotions first.
3. Avoid the details. When a client dives into details, they are safely taking you away from the problems that you are probing. Business coaches know to stay in the big picture. Ask why and avoid the how. Helping the clients stay focused on the thing they are resisting will lead to transformation sooner. Diving into details derails this important work.
4. Clarity is the problem. Remember, clients that are seeking transformation services from you can not see their problems clearly. Or they wouldn’t need you. Clarity is almost always the problem when you are helping clients solve their problems. Rarely do they need more information (that is what Google is for). Seek clarity, avoid fancy lingo, and make simple statements as to your understanding of what the issues are. Resistance may come from a client that feels embarrassed that they can’t see the problems right in front of their own eyes.
5. Control or Vulnerability? If Peter Block were to guess, he says most client resistance comes from either the client’s need for control or their fear of being hurt. All organizational structures are successful because they have shown control over their market and processes at some point in their history. Giving this up is against their core beliefs. On the other hand, protection is also a human sentiment. When we are threatened, we must protect ourselves. Thus, vulnerability is a difficult human emotion to release. When you sense these issues, call them what they are and ask, “do you perceive a way that my work may unintentionally hurt you or your organization?” Talk openly about their answer.
6. Express the resistance. One suggestion Peter Block has when dealing with resistance is to have the client express their resistance if at all possible. When the level of resistance is brought up to a level of awareness, it can then be dealt with. One way to do this is to help them express the resistance. Label it. Say this, “you seem to disagree with my suggestions.” Helping the client to label their resistance will get you to the bigger picture, and away from the details. The resistance is in the why (the bigger picture of the problem), while the solution is in the how (the details of the problem). You must deal with the resistance BEFORE you can deal with the SOLUTION.
Resistance is an Opportunity
Let’s take a new spin on the topic of client resistance. The fact that resistance is a common part of our transformative human work means we have a vast opportunity in front of us. All businesses are run by humans that can not clearly see the issues that are causing their problems (because they are too close to the issue). As business consultants, we have a wide open market for making a lot of money related to the great work of tearing down client walls. Every human business owner needs what we can offer! Wow!
Of course, not every business owner will let you take them through this transformative work. Your onboarding process can be built to identify the ones seeking change, and the ones that are window shopping. Stop serving window shoppers seeking a low price, and commit to working with those that are ready for transformation. Your work will become much more enjoyable and you will make a lot more money.
One Final Thought
You as the consultant are human too. Remember that the emotions your clients feel during resistance are emotions that we as consultants feel all the time. We too wonder if we can live up to the promises our firms are making. It’s often safer just to make smaller promises, market to everyone, and perform comfortable services. But the firm and life we get in return are often mundane and just like everyone else’s firm. To do great things requires a recognition (and an embracing) of resistance from our clients. It also must come with a recognition that we too are scared humans. Say it! Say that you are scared, and you will see new transformations in your clients’ lives as they follow suit and become more vulnerable with you too.
Jason is the Founder of Thriveal and the Chief Innovative Officer of his CPA firm, Blumer & Associates. He is the co-host of the Thrivecast and The Businessology Show and speaks and writes frequently for CPAs and creatives, his firm’s chosen niche. Jason loves to watch documentaries on just about anything. He lives in Greenville, SC with his wife and their three children. Stay connected with Jason by signing up at JasonBlumer.com.