In the course of human interaction conflict is inevitable. Add the pressures and transient nature of a consulting engagement and the opportunities for conflict increase significantly. In my experience there are two factors that contribute to the mismanagement of conflict:
(1) Most people are deeply afraid of conflict and generally fail to address it head on.
(2) Frequently consumers of consulting services are unclear about what they (really) want and need. Even if they know what they need rarely are they able to articulate it clearly.
Here is how to create a roadmap to manage these problems:
So, one of the most effective tools you can deploy as a consultant is to identify the areas of conflict at the beginning of an engagement. Start with the simple stuff – find out how your client likes to be interacted with – email? Swing by the desk and chat? Regular meetings? Sounds simplistic but someone who sends 5 emails in an evening to my already overloaded (and slightly neglected) inbox is going to be on my naughty list pretty quick.
Interrupt when I am trying to concentrate – you’re driving me crazy.
Schedule some time with me so I can prepare – I love you.
Communicating with people on their own ground will buy you a lot of goodwill.
Next, find out what works and what doesn’t for your sponsor. The problem here is you can’t ask them directly – when you do most people will either freeze up or give you a bunch of adjectives like “strong multi-tasking ability” or (my most hated phrase) “a good team player.” There is too much room for interpretation with these general phrases. What the heck does a “good team player” look like anyway? In my experience, most people mean “don’t be a jerk.”
So ask your sponsor to give specific examples of past consultants (or employees/coworkers) who did an exceptional job. Ask clarifying questions like “how did you notice that” and “why did you consider that remarkable?” Do the same for past consultants who flubbed or drove them crazy. Use the client’s experiences of what they like and dislike to create a list of behaviors to display and avoid.
Next use mirroring techniques to make sure you are clear about what is expected of you – remember most people are not clear on what they want (and don’t know it or can’t admit it.) So after they give you expectations repeat it back to them – “OK, what I hear you saying is that you need… Do I have a good understanding? Is there anything you would like to add?” When your client, who is unclear of their need hears you saying the words it allows them to come closer to clarity. Finally, get clear on how your client wants to be updated on the project, how often and what information do they need.
The bad news – even with the best preparation you are most likely to face conflict. When it hits the fan, don’t panic. Successful resolution of conflict can strengthen a relationship. If your client flips their lid – listen – don’t defend. Make sure you understand specifically why they are upset and that they know you know why they are upset (even/especially if they have missed something.) Repeat your understanding of the issue (“What I hear you are saying…) and let them know you can relate (“if I was under that impression I would feel the same way.”) That will take the steam out of the conflict and once you are there you can start to transform it into something productive.