Every few months, a slew of articles and blog posts come out addressing the universal issue of getting stakeholder buy-in or obtaining the ever elusive sign-off on your design. They provide great advice regarding building relationships, utilizing preventative measures, and remembering to be patient.
We are all consultants
What the articles often assume, but fail to mention concretely, is that design as a profession is a consulting business. Although we are responsible for actually executing on a vision, we still seek final approval elsewhere. Regardless of your role, be it “inny”, “outie”, or freelance, each one of us is a consultant to a client. That client may be an individual, department, or an entire organization. According to Peter Block, author of Flawless Consulting, “A consultant is a person in a position to have some influence over an individual, a group, or an organization, but who has no direct power to make changes or implement programs,” (emphasis original).
This fundamental understanding is important because our business, and ultimately the most difficult part of our job, is the business of influencing others. As designers we often feel frustrated because want the direct control, and may even act like we have it. Yet for a design project to be successful, a designer needs to function and behave differently than a decision maker. A good first step is to enter the project with the mindset and understanding that since you are not the decision maker, you can’t force anyone to do what you suggest. As a consultant, however, you can advice, recommend, and influence to the best of your abilities.
Many people look for procedural ways to more effective at consulting and influencing others, but such guidance rarely exists because a large aspect of consulting is “that your own self is involved in the process to a much greater extent than if you were applying your expertise in some other way. Your own reactions to a client, your own feelings during discussions, your own ability to solicit feedback from the client – all are important dimensions to consultation.”.
Thus, as consultants we are often operating on two planes. We are on the one hand operating at the substance level where we are attempting to rationally understand the client’s problem and recommending solutions. At the same time, we are also operating on an affective level, where we generate and sense our own feelings, as well as those of the client. It is crucial that as consultant, we pay attention to the second level.
Resistance is Futile Natural
As consultants, it is natural for us to think that if we present our designs clearly and logically, provide data to support our decisions, and truly have the client’s best interests at heart, that we will get the buy-in and support that we are seeking. We often believe this because we are not paying enough attention to the affective level until we begin to run into resistance.
Resistance is the point when we begin to lose forward momentum on the project, and start to believe that the client is being short-sited, stubborn, or irrational. In fact, resistance is an emotional process occurring within the client, and has absolutely nothing to do with all the rational data and justification that you have just presented. Although it may seem that the resistance is aimed directly at you, its important to not take it personally. If you are facing resistance, it is a sign that you have touched upon something important or valuable, and caused an emotional process to occur within the client. The client is resisting as a way to defend against having to make a difficult or unpopular decision, confront an organizational problem, or deal with a personal reality that they have been trying to emotionally avoid.
According to Block, “resistance is predictable, natural, and necessary part of the learning process. When as consultants we wish resistance would never appear or would just go away, we are, by that attitude, posing an obstacle to the client’s really integrating and learning from our expertise.”
The key to managing resistance is to understand that resistance is emotional discomfort expressed indirectly, and once we help our clients express these feelings directly, they will be able to more readily accept and use our advice.
There are three steps to helping our clients express themselves directly:
- Identify that resistance is taking place
- Name the resistance in a neutral way
- Leave room for a response
The best way to identify that resistance is taking place is to use your own feelings as a gauge. Are you having an important conversation with a client, but are feeling irritated or bored? If so, take a step back and in your own mind attempt to identify what form the resistance is taking place.
Resistance has many faces depending on the individual as exemplified below:
- Questioning Methodology – You are preparing to conduct a research or usability study and your client is questioning your methodology. Although some questioning is legitimate to understand your approach, if the questioning continues for more than 10 minutes, you may be facing resistance.
- Lack of Surprise – Perhaps you have conducted your research and are presenting findings back to the client. They respond by saying, “I am not surprised”, as if being surprised is the worst thing that could happen to them. The client’s fear of surprise is actually their desire to always be in control, and thus guard themselves against having to face up to a difficult emotional reality.
- Give Me More Detail – You are presenting sketches of your designs to discuss potential approaches, and the client keeps pressing you for more and finer bits of information. Regardless of how much information you give the client, it is never enough, and they don’t want to proceed until they get their latest request for more detail. When you start to get impatient with the questions, even though you are able to answer them, that is the moment to suspect resistance.
- Impracticality – As you design, you continually communicate and present designs in various stages of fidelity to your client. At every instance, the client reminds you that they “live in the real world and are facing real world problems” accusing you of being impractical. Although there may be some truth in this statement, the emphasis on practicality may lead you to suspect that you are up against an emotional issue.
- Compliance – One of the most difficult forms of resistance to identify is compliance. The client is agreeing to all your suggestions, everything is going swimmingly; they are the best clients ever! However, it’s not natural for a client to have no feedback or reservations. If those reservations are not expressed to you directly, they will come out in another, perhaps more destructive way. It is important to recognize this form of resistance and help the client express their reservations directly.
Once you have identified the resistance in your own mind, the next step is to name it to the client in a neutral way. The way you name the resistance is important, as you want to be sensitive to the client’s emotional process and not put them on the defensive. For example, if a client is being compliant you might say, “You seem to go along with all of my recommendations. I am having a hard time understanding your real feelings about this design”.
Once you name the resistance, you have to leave room for the response by quite literally not saying anything until your client responds. There might be an awkward silence where you will feel tempted to jump in and start rambling, but the goal of naming the resistance is to allow the client to express their feelings directly so that the project may be able to move forward.
Most of the time, naming the resistance will open up a channel for direct communication. Yet on occasion, naming the resistance won’t help, in those cases its best to start with your own feelings. You could say, “I feel very frustrated by this discussion”. The client may ask you why you feel this way, and it will open the door to get you to a direction discussion of the problem.
Sometimes It’s Not Resistance
Finally, it is important to remember that when a client disagrees with you or pushes back, it is not always resistance. Sometimes they just disagree with you, or don’t truly buy-in to your point of view. We can all become paranoid and believe that every objection is resistance. It is important to remember that resistance is discomfort expressed indirectly, so if a client says “This approach would put me in a vulnerable position politically, and I do not want to proceed in this manner”, they are being quite direct and honest about their feelings, and are not resisting you in any way. Although it might be disappointing, you should feel appreciative of the client’s direct expression and also know where you stand with the client.
As consultants, some of the hardest and most rewarding work that we can do is advise, recommend, and educate. Once we accept that resistance is a natural part of the process – and not take it personally – we will be much more effective in getting buy-in, as well as truly help the client to learn from our expertise. Much of resistance management hinges on being attune to the affective level of the conversation and relationship. It also about openness and awareness of our feelings, while helping the client express theirs directly. To finish with another quote from Block:
authentic behavior with a client means you put into words what you are experiencing with the client as you work. This is the most powerful thing you can do to have the leverage you are looking for to build client commitment.