If I Were You…

Mike O. explains how he came to understand what it means to be a trusted advisor.


Getting It Right

I had been a consultant for many years. I had a good sense of what client service meant – that I should pursue the right thing for my client, rather than just what I thought was the coolest idea.

I had learned the importance of communication. You had to be clear on your thinking in the first place, then be articulate about getting points across. I knew about body language, about using graphics and not just data, and about dramatic presentations.

I knew all this was hard work and that even with good effort and skill, it was still not an easy task to persuade clients of what I knew to be in their best interest.

Then one day something happened.

Getting It Inside Out

I’d gotten to know Manuel reasonably well. We had spent time together “thinking aloud” and had gained respect for each other as thinkers.

We were talking about some business issue, I honestly don’t recall what. Toward the end he asked me what I thought he should do about a particular angle.

At that moment I was completely at ease. The job was going well. He and I got along nicely. It was a sunny day.

I knew the issue inside out. I knew what Manuel was good at and not good at, what he liked and didn’t like, and how he was likely to respond to the particular situation.

In that moment I could envision exactly what would work for him – while still from my perspective as an outsider. It was like being him, but without any attachment to either his limitations, or to my ego. I knew what would be exactly right for him to do.

“If I were you,” I began – and suddenly everything changed.

He leaned in toward me, relaxed, but focused and intent on what I was going to tell him.  He really wanted to hear what I would say next – and I knew he was going to do exactly what I suggested.

Now, I know how to read body language. I realized this had not happened before. Every other time I gave advice to clients, they leaned back or sat up straight; they stiffened their back, rather than relaxing. Their eyes narrowed, rather than opening up; they were preparing to evaluate what I had to say.

But Manuel wasn’t in evaluation mode; he was going to accept exactly what I said, and we both knew it.

If I Were You…

I realized later those words both triggered and expressed a new perspective. Until then, I had always thought of consulting as telling the client what I thought they should do. I was the expert, they were paying me to get my expert advice. I packaged my advice to maximize the chances they’d do the right thing.

But it was always me, advising them. With Manuel, for the first time, I’d gotten outside myself. I’d realized what I would do if I were him.

I no longer had to be me, telling my clients what to do. I could tap into being them, imagining what it was like, what would work, and what wouldn’t. All I had to do was imagine putting myself in their shoes.

I realized they really did want my advice – if I was a steward about it, really reflecting their take on things.  I became more careful about giving my advice, waiting until I not only had the facts and the problem straight, but had a chance to empathize with the client as well.  That way, when the time came, I knew I could sincerely say, “If I were you…”

Consulting began to get a lot easier. I still had to do the leg work, the thinking, the presenting. But I no longer felt it was a struggle. I now know, my best advising comes when I’m able to put myself in the other guy’s shoes.


Thanks, Mike, eloquently said.

Are Your Great Ideas Just Knee Jerk Reactions?

You know how the doctor checks your knee for reflex by tapping it with the rubber hammer? Is it possible our greatest ideas are similarly predictable? And is that depressing? Or just boring?

Case 1. The Governor Paterson to-do. Governor Spitzer goes down in flames, whereupon the newly appointed governor confesses to his own giant-sized passel of moral turpitude. (For the humorous angle, check my last posting).

On the serious side, here are two letters to the editor of newspapers: Match the opinion to the geography of the writer:

A. We Americans are a more forgiving lot than you’d think when it comes to sexual morays; what we can’t abide by is getting conned.

B. So Paterson and his wife have told the public of their infidelities. So what? Is that supposed to make it better or go away? Cheating is like pregnancy—you’re not a little bit cheater. You is or you isn’t.

OK, which writer was from (1) Redwood City, California (on the peninsula, near Palo Alto, and which from (2) Califon, New Jersey (central NJ, 60 miles outside of NYC). (Answers: A1, B2 just in case).

Too easy? OK, Case 2: the subprime mortgage debacle. Match the editorial opinion to the publication:

A. Maybe financial regulation will mean less financial innovation. Maybe that’s not such a bad idea.

B. Do not ban financial instruments. The pariahs of one age—program-trading, short-selling, junk bonds—are usually reborn in respectable garb in the next. The system…rarely makes the same mistake twice.

Which was (1) The Economist, and which (2) Newsweek? Not too hard either, I suspect. (A2, B1 in case I’m wrong).

I’m not saying this predictability is surprising. I’m reminding us it’s not.

Pollsters know this well. So does anyone who cares to take note of his commonsense observations. We are all quite familiar with the notion that others’ opinions are linked to other patterns, hence easy to predict.

Yet we’re also very fond of the idea that our opinions are different. We hold the Keys to the Truth.

(Or to be more precise, I hold the keys to the Truth. You, on the other hand—not to be rude about it, just stating the facts—only have opinions. Which, given who you are, are quite predictable. No offense—I’m just saying.)

And of course we (me too, in this case) tend to prefer the company of those whose opinions are enlightened (i.e. resemble ours). If you can’t remember which bloviator is O’Reilly and which is Limbaugh, then you probably don’t hang out with those who do. I mean, why bother listening to the unenlightened, right?

And when the inability to see others’ perspectives is brought face to face with our tendency to behave very predictably, we all get bent out of shape about it. Because while we see consistency on big issues as a virtue, we see predictability on said issues as an insult.

Case in point: Obama’s recent comment about “typical” white people. Let me be clear about my own opinion: he was speaking about the belief systems of the majority culture, which happens to be white—and in that sense, he was completely, 100% correct about what he described. Hence, typical. (Bad majority culture politics, but quite accurate use of the English language).

“Typical” majority culture behavior is to equate majority norms and perceptions with “normal.” And it is equally predictable—typical, you might say—that this view drives minority culture people nuts. ("You tell me that’s a Top 40 song? And just whose Top 40 did you have in mind?")

It drives them about as nuts as majority culture people are driven when someone points out to them the utter predictability of blind spots in majority culture people.

Part of the reason racism is so intractable is that we so easily impute beliefs to others—with a great deal of accuracy, by the way—at the same time we resist so strongly the idea that another person’s idea might be as legitimate as our own.

To a majority culture person, it is hard to imagine Obama equating in the same paragraph his grandmother’s mildly racist statements to his minister’s outrageous comments. Yet to a minority culture person, it is hard to imagine how someone could ignore the minority/majority context—Grandma’s mild reaction was proportionate to the mildness of her experience of racism; Jeremiah Wright’s response was equally proportionate to his far-more violent personal experience of racism.

As an evolving species, my guess is the way to “I’m OK, You’re OK” must first go through “I’m an Idiot, You’re an Idiot.” The first step is to admit there’s a problem. That requires listening to one another. Arguably the hardest thing to do.