The Client Who Turned My Life Upside Down
A young student, whom I will call Brenda, came to my office to make an appointment for a consultation. She left a New Client Information Form for me that described the topics she wished to discuss. Over the weekend I reviewed the form and learned that she intended to construct an experiment and analyze the results without the advantage of the appropriate coursework in statistics. I began to wonder how to help her while avoiding statistical jargon. I continued to ponder her situation and spend a considerable amount of time in preparation.
In keeping with my new system of consulting, I arranged to videotape the session with Brenda. Despite the fact that I had been videotaped three of four times before, I was apprehensive about the presence of the camera and the possibility that the tape would be shown to our consulting class. At least my preparation was sound.
As the appointment time approached and passed, I was irritated at Brenda before I had even met her because she was a no show; however, eventually I found her waiting outside my office. This breakdown occurred because I had failed to apprise my new secretary that I met my consulting clients in the video room rather than in my office. Now I was also upset at her. Then I was upset at myself when I realized that my mistake had led to all this.
As Brenda and I walked to the video room I was still stewing. At the same time I realized that I had to settle down so that I could concentrate on the upcoming consultation.
At the start of the session, Brenda informed me that she was enrolled in the first semester of a master’s degree program that required a thesis based on collected data. She further explained that she was lost in this project and needed my help. And there was one other item to share. Brenda had changed her entire research project, the one I had just spent my weekend preparing.
So much for my efforts to settle down! At this point I was thinking that my weekend was wasted time and this session was going from bad to worse. I was fumbling with her new plan and resenting that she made this change without any forewarning.
There was conflict in my mind between my commitment to be helpful and my reaction of frustration at the surprises occurring before and during the first few minutes of the session. The conflict was further aggravated by my attitudes about her, her questions and her new thesis topic. These inner feelings were evident when I reviewed the video tape later. I appeared to be talking to myself and often talking at her, not listening to her.
At this point, I decided to spend some time clarifying the question Brenda hoped to study in her thesis. Rapidly, it became apparent that her question was squarely in the middle of the set of questions that I did not regard as worthy of my time.
My struggle to clarify what she hoped to do in her thesis was exacerbated by my thinking that she required more statistical knowledge to do this project than she had. I thought that it was unacceptable for her to do it without that knowledge because she would not be able to defend her work.
During this internal conflict I looked at her and said, “I notice that you are in a course that will help you plan your research project. Have you taken a statistics class?” I was hoping that somehow, somewhere she had taken a course that she had forgotten to list on her form.
“Hm mm.” (Vigorously shaking her head, i.e. “NO!”)
“OK, so is that one of the things you are going to be doing this year is picking up a statistics class so that when you get this …”
Brenda looked me right in the eye, and emphatically stated, “No!”
I hauled myself up from the deep physical and mental slouch that I had been in since the start of the session, looked down upon her and said disdainfully, “I would highly recommend that.”
Unfazed by my attempt to pull rank and intimidate, she again looked me straight in the eye and asked again, “But how do I test a theory in my thesis?”
The conversation deteriorated. Suffice it to say that she met with me once more with her advisor present and then completed her thesis by working with a statistics graduate student. Brenda never met with me again.
The consulting class
At the next class meeting, I explained to the students that I had a video. It was dull and the client did not want to learn statistics. Her thesis topic had been studied hundreds of times. I begged them “Isn’t there one of you who has a video that would be more useful to review?”
No one answered my plea, so we looked at my video. My own attitudes had me by the throat. I was convinced that this activity was going to be a waste of time. This was just another routine, unsatisfactory session with a “bad” client who had a “bad” question and a “bad” attitude.
As an aside, professionals are good at giving positive feedback but it is important to hear the other side of the story. Students are good at that. They get right to the point.
One student asked, “Why did you treat her so arrogantly?” I reacted quickly, “She was a bad client. You can talk to anyone and they’ll agree.” The class ended with me still convinced that the session went poorly because she was a bad client.
Some months later I showed this video at a conference in a presentation on how to teach consulting using video. In the discussion afterwards, an experienced consultant said, “I don’t see what the problem is here. I have clients like this all the time. I love to work with them and see how I can help them.” I began to doubt my attitudes and overall opinion of Brenda.
Once I became aware of my defensiveness and at least some of my attitudes about Brenda, her thesis, and her lack of statistical training, I realized that I had great difficulty being helpful in the session. In fact, I was not helpful at all.
This was a tough new message for me as I had assumed that my counsel was always helpful. In fact, others had complimented me on my helpfulness. reviewing the video and listening to what others said made it uncomfortably clear that my assumption was wrong. Additional discomfort occurred when I realized how quickly I blamed this entire incident on the client. After all, I had been consulting for years.
However, if I was going to be helpful to all clients in all situations, I would have to collect more data and learn how to change.
This case showed me that my interpretation of an interaction is not the only one.
Life work: Continuing to learn from data
Everyone has had interactions that did not go well. Generally people have a theory about how this happens. Often these theories involve blaming the problem on the other person. Sometimes this person disappears and you miss the opportunity to learn what happened from his or her point of view.
Viewing video over the years, my goal became to systematically improve my work so that I could produce effective interactions with all clients, regardless of their attitude or level of ability. My sadness in this case is that Brenda disappeared. I did not have the chance to thank her for the enormous contribution she made to me by being candid. This book is dedicated to all the Brendas to whom I owe thanks for what they have taught me. My purpose in writing this book is to share lessons learned. I hope that some part of my journey will be of use to you on your journey