I didn’t have to look far to find these “scripts”.  I’ve played each of them many times before in conversations with friends and colleagues, and expect that I’m in good company.  Most of these are not scripts that nourish relationships, cultivate friendships, build self-image, or free up our positive creative energy.  And yet how often do these scripts guide our behavior?

My suggestion — Try playing each of these scripts for a day.  Rehearse your lines, and be prepared to deliver them with passion and energy.  But stop short of speaking.  Think twice, and experience how the “real” you can best come forward.

Have I left out one of your favorite — or least favorite — scripts.  I’d love to hear from you.  Post on this blog, or e-mail me.

  • Woe is me — Let me tell you all that has befallen me this week, the people who have been so mean or thoughtless, those who I thought were my friends, but finally showed their true (selfish) colors.
  • Gratitude — I’m so thankful for you as my good friend, and you’re part of a community surrounding me.  Stuff keeps happening, but I’m glad that I’m not alone.
  • Entertainment — I’m an entertaining speaker, and I’ve lots of new stories and jokes, so — hold on to your seat — let me sound off.
  • Compassionate curiosity — It’s been quite a while since we’ve really talked, and I’d love to hear what’s happening with you.  What’s happening with you now?  What’s important?  I’d like to know.
  • Interview — I want to hear about you, but let me take control of the conversation.  Are you ready for my first question (of twenty!)?
  • Flirting time — I’d like to offer you much gratuitous praise — not that I really mean it, but can’t we enjoy flattering each other?
  • Far from the personal – Let’s talk about politicians abroad, or movie stars, or scandals . . . anything that keeps us from revealing much about ourselves today.
  • Not so hidden disinterest — I asked you how you are, and about your family, but please don’t say anything too challenging.  Running into you has been a diversion from how I really wanted to spend my time.
  • Saving the world — I know you’re compassionate about world hunger, torture, and other such tragic issues, but are you feeling enough guilt?  Let me offer some concrete things that you can do, and a big dose of guilt for you to absorb if you’re not willing to take these on.
  • Please set the pace — Glad to run into you.  I’ll be relatively quiet, just wanting to hear from you.
  • Our fortune is overwhelming — Let me tell you about my promotion, the fantastic job our daughter just got, the contest we won.  I’ve so much good news to share with you that I really don’t have time to listen to your story today.  Oh, yes, and I was sorry to hear your bad news.
  • False pretense — Let me pretend I didn’t see you.  I won’t say a word, but trust you won’t be offended.

“Hurry up and finish speaking, so I can tell you why you’re wrong!”

Have you ever found yourself thinking such a thought, instead of really trying to grasp what truth might be said?  Of course, such impatient waiting is not true listening, and rarely serves us well.  It leaves us poised for a fight, rather than ready for insight, understanding, and growth.

Listening is a critical skill in all of our lives.  In business we’re concerned with management, supervision, marketing, sales — all tasks involving relationships.  We need to listen to employees, managers,  customers and potential customers, suppliers, stockholders, neighbors — all those who are impacted by our policies and operations.

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Any consultant wanting to hone his or her skills should read this recent article by Bernard Ross and Sudeshna Mukherjee in The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

Here are the ten points they list:  (For a detailed explanation, read the article!)

Following this list, I’ve added eight more that I believe are at least as important.

* Have self-confidence and be as adept at delivering bad news as good.

* Have a good understanding of the business and of themselves.

* Have transferable skills.

* Have the ability to simplify and explain a problem.

* Have more than one solution to a problem.

* Be a good listener.

* Be a team player.

* Be able to market.

* Gain client trust.

* Remember who’s the star.

And while I agree strongly with all of these, there are more traits that I believe are equally important:

* Be comfortable telling the truth.  Clients may just want to hear positive words, expressions of praise.  A great consultant is willing to say what needs to be said.

* Be tactful and affirming.  Truthtelling doesn’t need to be negative and abrasive.  A great consultant can phrase criticism as helpful suggestions, and can lead the client toward constructive action.

* Know how to ask great questions.  Great consultants ask great questions.  It’s through such questions that we learn what’s really going on, what the client thinks is going on, and what different groups within the client organization think is going on.

* Be willing to play together.  You can learn only so much sitting at the conference table.  Spending some quality time with the client outside of the office environment is important as well.  A great consultant can engage the client in different venues, and, by so doing, learn much ore about motivations, hopes, fears, etc.

* Have lots of integrity.  Confidences need to be respected.  Promises need to be kept.  A great consultant only makes promises that he or she can and will keep.

* Admit mistakes.  Great consultants aren’t always right.  What’s important is that they take responsibility for the advice they offer, and are willing to acknowledge when it proves to be “off” in any way.

* Love simplicity.  Even when Business and organization problems seem quite complex, some simple models will help clients understand.  A great consultant and report and prescribe in very simple terms, but will still be ready to address the added complexity that may be part of a full understanding.

* Enjoy the work.  Great consultants have fun.  Working with clients can be like playing in a sandbox, and helping clients solve their own problems can be like building those sand castles most of used used to create as children.  Clients will catch on — that it’s fund to learn, to develop new understanding, to think up new possible solutions, to test ideas, and to work together in a collaborative environment.

Telling my story . . .

April 16, 2012

On being a consultant

November 26, 2010

I was asked about making the transition from practitioner to consultant, and offer the following advice:

  • You don’t have to have answers, and certainly don’t have to have them right up front!
  • Ask insightful questions, listen, listen more.
  • Let the clients voice what they need, the visions they carry, the kinds of support that will help them make needed changes.
  • More change will happen when they name it themselves. And when the client’s management sees that real change follows your visits, you’ll be a hero.

Yes — you may have lots of information, may see things very quickly, and could impress people by coming in swinging.  In the long run, this works against you.

These are all workshops that I’ve taught at different places, and want to offer again — probably in new ways.  I’m talking with several  conference centers, but also invite you to consider these for your school, your church, or your community group.

About Listening

Listening is the core activity in almost all of our social and work lives — and yet how little time and effort we spend perfecting this skill!  And too often when we should be listening, we’re really preparing to talk, plotting our course, processing our emotions, or even tuning out completely.  In this workshop we’ll practice active listening, offering feedback to test our understanding, and formulating questions that clarify what was already said.  We’ll identify common behaviors that get in the way of listening, and best practices that can help us all.

Photography as Journal Keeping

Photography can be just snapshots, or deeper expressions of feelings, perceptions, ideas, memories. We’ll experiment with deeper ways to see, experience, and feel — using a camera.  This is NOT a technical class on photography, and in fact you don’t even need to bring a camera with you.  Just bring an open mind, open eyes, and (if you have one) an image that means a lot to you.

Read the rest of this entry »

I’ve identified six critical skills, that serve me well in my coaching and consulting.  In fact, I think these may be all the skills that I need.

But check me on this.  Comment on this blog with what you think might be missing or wrong.

1. Listening (and looking, and listening)

Listening is an active process.  It’s not summarily waiting until the other speaker is done, so that you can respond!  At best, it includes offering some feedback, that allows you to test whether you’ve understood.  And the other modes — looking and listening — are just as active.  As a photographer, I have to constantly ask myself, “What’s visually interesting her”, and, “What am I seeking?”

2. Asking great questions

Lots of questions come from a wrong place — trying to show off, or make the speaker wrong, or some such.  Great questions illuminate, open up a deeper dialog, expose important issues.  They may also show some bias or committment, but they are not argumentative debating points.

3. Giving and receiving feedback

The most helpful feedback is offered with understanding and compassion.  It may be as simple as, “I see you doing this, and wonder why you feel you need to?”.  Feedback to you is best received as helpful advice — not as criticism.  It’s coaching, editing, insight that can refine, sharpen, augment.

4. Design thinking

A good design is an economical, functional, beautiful solution to a well-understood problem.  It may be an elegant bridge that supports many cars, or a simple tool to cleanly cut pieces of pie.  A design may be a process, an interaction, or may be embodied in an object.  Design thinking is focused on creating such full solutions, rather than makeshift steps that appear to solve an immediate problem.

5. Feeling and showing empathy and respect

Conflict can be constructive, if we see those who differ from us as helpful messengers of new points of view.  Even if those points of view seem to us completely wrong, perhaps even counter to our core values, an empathetic and respectful relationship leads us to seek understanding, welcome deep sharing.

6. Integrity, including being able to say “I don’t know”

Truth telling is becoming increasingly rare these days, but it still matters.  And one of the most important truths — especially in business situations, is that we don’t know the answer.  Why not just say so?

Users have a special knowledge, and an intimate familiarity with data and process.   Listening to them informs us.  Watching how users work with our prototype system design lets us refine the design, so that it is clearer, more intuitive, easier to use, and harder to miss-use.

Listening is an attentive and active process that that requires focus and energy. Too many system design projects are based on untested assumptions — when listening to and watching users could have created a much better result.

Design is not cleaning up the mess, or adding ornamentation at the end.  It’s a process of thinking, organizing, trying, testing, reworking, creating anew, refining, honing, and more.  Successful systems work because they are well conceived, and responsive to user needs, styles, wishes, and habits.  They continue to work because they are well structured, and can be easily maintained and enhanced.

A successful user interface design defines  a process by which users interact with many elements of their work world.  It’s much more than just a pretty set of screens.

In consdiering the design challenges I face, I’d distinguish process from paradigm.

Many of the processes I use may be time worn, orthodox, etc. Contextual inquiry (or listening to users) is not new, paper prototyping was not invented last week. I use them not because they are “accepted orthodoxy” but because I find them functional steps towards creative solutions.  The fact that they may be “orthodox” does not make them wrong or outmoded.

But I’m stuck with too many old paradigms about how to understand the world. I imagine a vehicle having some controls, and would have trouble coming up with a Segway where you just lean to steer it. I imagine sound players will have knobs, and would not have expected the iPod model. I still expect cameras to look like those old film devices, even though the physical constraints that led to such designs are gone. I don’t choose these paradigms — I’m stuck with them, until I find a way to escape.

How will my processes, methods, whatever, help me to see the world outside the paradgms that limit my vision? That’s the burning question for me — each day, and with each new project.

Listening with love

November 27, 2009

Can we hear each other with Love, searching to find the truth — perhaps even  the Divine Inspiration — in each message we read on-line, or that we hear in person?

When we fail to find truth in a message that is important to us, can we still sit with it, listen or pray for guidance, and search carefully for the best response that is possible from us?

Can we feel the pain of those whose views, which may not be “popular” views and with which we may not agree, are treated with derision or scorn?

Can we create in each encounter the same community of  love and respect that we seek to create in other aspects of our lives?

I heard this story from a speaker at a recent forum on social media.  She told us of working for several hours with a company that creates voice recognition software, and needed help with search engine optimization (SEO) to make sure that their story would get picked up by Google and the like.

As she was leaving, she asked the receptionist, “When people call, do they ask about voice recgnition products?”  “Never!”, replied the receptionist, laughing at the seemingly absurd question. “They ask if we have those computers you can talk to”, she explained.

I find this again and again . . . listening carefully is the key.  And that’s why my business card says “Arthur Fink – Listening to Users”.  In this case, the keywords need to include something like “computers you can talk to”.  Otherwise people will never find this product.

What do your employees do all day?  Why, of course, they answer the phone and take customer orders, or they open mail and post cash receipts, or they respond to customer service inquiries, or whatever.  Why, you might ask, do I bother with this question?

Well, many — perhaps most — employers don’t really know how their employees spend their time.  The order takers may function as fashion counselors, discussing how certain colors match or not, the cash receipts people may do more address maintenance than receipt posting, the customer service people may spend much of their time researching questions whose answers could have been documented.

There may be nothing wrong with this use of time.  One of my clients sold clothes specially designed for nursing mothers.  The order takers there were practically functioning as lactation counselors — and the company felt that was just fine!  The advice offered was a service to their customers, instilled confidence in them, and, it was hoped, led to increased sales of the nursing garments.

But it is a problem when computer systems are designed for one idealized understanding of a work task, and doesn’t support others aspects of the job that are no so well recognized or understood.  Here’s a particularly interesting example that I encountered on a consulting project:

My client created computer systems for collection agencies, and I was visiting one of thier clients.  For several days, I sat next to a debt collector, wearing a phone headset so that I could hear both sides of each conversation, and watching the computer screen to see what information the collector brought up.  Finally, I exclaimed to the collector, “So, it seems that your task is really getting people who owe money to make promises that they will keep”.  He was ecstatic, telling me that nobody had ever expressed it so clearly to him.  Then I continued . . . “so, all that data on the screen, I wonder what you’re doing with it.  Are you just computing how well the past promises have been kept?”  Indeed, that was the case, and at that point the collector was quite precise in telling me what kinds of promise keeping indices would be most helpful.

Although my assignment was officially to review the user interface of the product, it had become clear to me that the real task I was expected to do was to find ways to stuff more data onto an already crowded screen.  In a general way, the debt collection companies that bought this software believed that all that data was useful.  But once my client understood how

the data was being used, and what the collectors were doing with much — perhaps most — of their time, a significant re-design was possible.

Another company found that their order return processors were spending time keying in order numbers, or researching order numbers because customers didn’t return the part of the invoice / packing list that was supposed to be used for returns.  Putting a bar code on that document made it easier to retrieve data with each return, and increased the fraction of returns that did come back with the form.  Evidently customers attached more importance to a form with a bar code on it.

In another case, employees often wouldn’t realize that they may have made a mistake until they were processing the next order.  At that point they’d have to go back to the previous order, see if indeed there was something wrong, and make any corrections necessary.  Providing a simple way to perform that navigation (an “uups” button), speeded up that validation and correction process — even though it didn’t stop mistakes from being made in the first place.

Knowing what tasks your employees are really doing, and how they really spend their time, can help in user interface re-design, work flow re-design, plant or office engineering, and many other areas.

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