Saturday, March 12, 2016

Collaborative Consulting

What's the best way to work with clients who want their problems solved, when our goal is to help them learn how to solve their own problems? Social science research suggests they'll learn best if we collaborate with them instead of offering expert recommendations. The more the change process is self-defined, self-monitored, self-evaluated, and self-reinforced by those who have to make the changes, the greater the likelihood of enduring effects.

These same values predominate in other fields, as well. Collaboration has been embraced by many practitioners of medicine (mutual participation), leadership (motivational management), teaching (student-centered), and psychotherapy (client-centered). Why? Because taking the expert role in any of these situations can stifle self-initiated action. Medical patients, for example, are less likely to comply with a treatment regimen if they're told what to do without being involved in the process.

But there's a problem. If we value collaboration, we expect to work conjointly with people to diagnose, plan, and carry out actions that will solve their problems, resulting (we hope) in their greater commitment to the process of change and stronger ownership of results. We also assume the process of collaboration itself will generalize to other relationships. Historically, however, most organizations have been competitive in orientation and authoritarian in implicit expectations (some organizations still use such terms as chain of command).

Thus, if a client system is hierarchical and authoritarian, we might as well acknowledge that we're attempting a revolution.

As it turns out, that's not an issue very often, because we often fail to develop the kind of collaboration we believe in. And when we fail, we too often blame our clients; citing their resistance, for example. Instead, we need to look at the subtle ways we contribute to the problem by unwittingly taking an expert role.

The dictionary defines collaboration in two ways:
  • Where people cooperate voluntarily it means working together or acting jointly.
  • Where values are different, as when a conquering government takes over a country, to collaborate means to comply with.
It is in this second sense that collaboration in consulting situations can be compliance with the coach or consultant's wishes, because our clients often operate implicitly from more traditional, hierarchical modes of interaction.

How does that happen? Because we value collaboration so much we tend to insist on it, missing the point that this very behavior constitutes a bid for dominance. Telling someone "We're going to collaborate" is a paradoxical communication: clients are damned if they do and damned if they don't. If they "collaborate" by going along with us, we may be praising them for in fact doing as they're told (this is a do as I say, not as I do scenarios). If they choose not to collaborate, we give them a negative label (resistance) for taking self-initiated action, the very outcome we say we're seeking. No wonder our clients sometimes seem confused.

I believe it's important to create an integrated set of values, building on the initial beliefs and expectations of both. It's possible, then, to negotiate an approach where collaboration occurs in the process of uncovering and integrating differences.


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