Achieving trusted advisor status is a primary goal of many leaders. Whether that status is with internal business partners, senior leaders, or customers, leaders don’t want to be seen simply as order takers. Instead they want to be viewed as a valuable resource in the other person’s decision making process.
Having the wrong type of conversation is one of the biggest mistakes leaders make in trying to become a trusted advisor. I recently observed a group of business consultants working with a client. The consultants were trying to help the client improve his people’s performance on a specific issue. What struck me about the interaction was that it didn’t sound like a conversation. It sounded like an interview. The consultants would ask a question, the client would answer. The consultants would then ask the next question on their list or ask for a clarification of the prior answer. It was mostly a one-way conversation with the client doing most of the heavy lifting. The process appeared smooth and efficient but it didn’t feel natural. More importantly, it didn’t provide the information or results the consultants needed. In many cases, the client wasn’t quite sure what to answer.
Often an individual who is facing a problem doesn’t have it fully defined. Asking good questions can certainly help the person clarify his or her issue. However, sometimes people simply haven’t thought through the problem well enough to have an answer.
For many people, reacting to an idea or statement is often easier than generating one from scratch. A good trusted advisor should use a combination of questions, observations, stories, and examples to help facilitate a discussion. Not only will that help the other person organize and clarify his or her thoughts, it will make the conversation feel much more natural.
Trusted advisors don’t interview their clients. Instead they participate in a deep conversation about the client’s business problem. Listening and understanding should be the primary goal and there is nothing wrong with asking questions. However, a conversation should be a two-way dialog. The trusted advisor should be adding to the discussion, not just taking down information from the client.
When you think about the best talk show hosts or interviewers on radio or television, you’ll notice that they don’t actually interview their guests (other than perhaps James Lipton who has mastered the interview). Most of them carry on a two way conversation. They use questions during that conversation but they also offer their own insights and observations along the way. This helps to keep the conversation flowing and often opens up new areas to explore and discuss. It also makes the interaction more natural and interesting.
If you want to be a trusted advisor, stop interviewing your clients and instead talk with them. Don’t dominate the conversation – your goal is still to listen and understand. However, help them make sense of their situation by giving them things to think about, compare against, and react. Not only will that help make the conversation flow, it will help you demonstrate your expertise. Asking a series of rote questions isn’t particularly hard. Synthesizing someone’s statements and pulling up a story or example to help clarify those statements demonstrates mastery.
Here are a few tips for shifting from an interview to a discussion:
· Relate what you are hearing to another client or experience you’ve had
· Extend what you are hearing by discussing research, articles, or other things that you’ve read on the topic
· Help the client organize his or her thoughts by providing a model or framework (e.g., “Generally these types of problems fall into one of three categories . . .”)
· Keep an open mind – you’re not trying to convince your client that your ideas are right, you are just giving him or her something upon which to react
· Don’t be afraid of being wrong. It’s ok to be wrong when making sense of what your client is saying. You are testing your assumptions. Your client will correct you and will also clarify the issue better for him or herself. They will also appreciate the fact that you are trying to make sense of the situation.
People don’t like to be interviewed. It puts them on the spot, creates risk, and can even be perceived as being confrontational. People like engaging in conversations. Our brains work better when reacting and making sense of things in context. Conversation and dialog provide context, discrete questions remove context.
A trusted advisor's value isn't just based upon helping a client determine the best solution. Sometimes the value is in helping that client better understand his or her problem.
Try to shift from conducting interviews to engaging in discussions. In doing so, you’ll learn more, make better recommendations, increase buy-in, and ultimately create a better relationship.