The Client is the Expert

7 April 2011 in Musings Write by Paolo Terni

Here is a short story that very well illustrates why I love Solution-Focus Coaching and its magic in bringing out clients’ expertise.

My Coaching Client is the Administration Manager for a small but fast-growing company, and we are having a Coaching session over Skype.

Topic of the session: he wants his co-workers to be “more motivated“.

I know that the concept of “motivation” is a tricky one.

Personally I am very skeptical about the whole construct.

And recently published works by Daniel Pink and by Dan Ariely show how the notion of “motivating someone” is little more than a myth.

However, operating under Solution-Focused assumptions, I am not supposed to share these recent insights from psychology with my Client. Even though the role of the “know-it-all” nerd fits me perfectly well, I have to bite my tongue.

As it often happens during tough moments in Coaching, I look at the card pictured above, that sits prominently on my desk. It reads:  “Slow Down, Calm Down, Don’t’ Worry, Don’t Hurry, Trust the Process.”

So I did just that: I relaxed, got my hands off the steering wheel and let the Solution-Focused process unfold, one question at a time.

“Suppose your co-workers are more motivated. What would you notice? What would they be doing differently? What would you be doing differently? What else? Have there been times recently when your employees behaved in the desired manner?…”

The client answers eagerly the first questions – however, as we go into more details of how things would be different, I can sense his frustration. A sort of tension simmering.

At some point he stops and says: “I am wondering… maybe I got it all wrong.”

Me: “what do you mean?”

Client: “well… I do not think I need to motivate them. They are already motivated! It’s just that they like to work in a different way -  each with his or her own area of responsibility rather than as a team! And to be working in this company as a team would mean a huge cultural change, given our history. This has got more to do with my expectation of how the company could grow in the future than with actual motivation or work performance!”

What an insight! Without me suggesting anything, the client got to the same conclusion as that of current cutting-edge research: you cannot “motivate” employees. You can only create the right conditions for them to be engaged in their work.

I looked once again at that card – and I smiled to myself.

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16 Comments to: The Client is the Expert

  1. Alan Kay on 7 April 2011

    Love it!! …create the right conditions for them to be engaged in their work.

    Letting the client be the expert in order to come to this realization is so important.

    I recently worked with a group of adult learners at a roundtable – they were self-declared as lacking proficiency in math skills (life and workplace).
    My questions assumed they already knew quite a lot about math;
    - what are you most pleased about you math skills?
    - when they get even better, what will that look like?
    - when you are getting math training / tutoring, what will work best for you?
    There were ‘expert’ adult education observers in the room. They enjoyed the luxury of seeing the learners in their expertise (vs deficiency). The resulting plan to implement the math program will create for both learners and tutors…the right conditions to be engaged.

  2. Nini Baseema on 7 April 2011

    “Even though the role of the “know-it-all” nerd fits me perfectly well, I have to bite my tongue.”

    Ahm… That is a sentence I could have said… ;-)))

  3. Nini Baseema on 7 April 2011

    But then again, a little feedback here and now can do wonders- such as:
    Paolo- you have to give the phrazing of the tweets in your blog posts a little more consideration as they do not include @solsurfersUSA AND don’t contain #psychology or #coaching as a hashtag…
    #justsaying

  4. Paolo Terni on 7 April 2011

    @Nini: hahahah… then there is two of us… #knowitall :)

  5. Paolo Terni on 7 April 2011

    Oh, I see… I need to include that IN my blog posts, too?!?? #socialmediaishard :)

  6. Nini Baseema on 7 April 2011

    Need a coaching? ;-)))

  7. michael cardus on 7 April 2011

    thank you for sharing this story and your struggles. I too read and want to flood people I am coaching with information.
    Trusting the SF process does work because it is their solution.

  8. Paolo Terni on 7 April 2011

    @ Nini: maybe!!! :))

  9. Paolo Terni on 7 April 2011

    @ Michael: thank you. Yes, it is always a struggle, but I learned to “trust the process” :)

  10. Paolo Terni on 7 April 2011

    @ Alan: sorry if I get to your comment only now, for some reason I was not alerted about it via email…
    and yes! That is exactly the point! Thanks for sharing that story!!

  11. Anissa on 9 April 2011

    As a person that wants to help people fix their challenges, it takes quite a bit of restraint for me to hold back when I think I have solutions. This was a great reminder that the answer is within them and it’s not about me. A tough lesson but so valuable – thank you for keeping me on my toes :-)

  12. Hannes Couvreur on 26 April 2011

    Great post Paolo, thanks for sharing this story and for sharing your personal experience with the client. Really helpful. Makes me have more faith in the value of getting out of the way.
    PS: Are you going to Solworld?

  13. Paolo Terni on 26 April 2011

    Thank you, Hannes, for your comment.
    I know, it is hard to get out of the way!! :)

    Re SolWorld, I will send you an email shortly :)

  14. Paolo Terni and his expert client « Superbly Human – simply making the possible happen on 26 April 2011

    [...] At his terrific blog my colleague Paolo Terni has a nice short story (5 minutes) which illustrates why “The Client is the Expert” is such a useful assumption. [...]

  15. Meri Walker on 26 April 2011

    What a wonderful, simple story, Paolo! Thanks so much for sharing it. Your anchor card is a wonderful thing. Did you make that yourself? I need just such a device sometimes to help me keep my mouth shut…

  16. Paolo Terni on 26 April 2011

    Thank you, Meri! I appreciate your comment! Glad you enjoyed this snapshot of Solution-Focused Coaching in action! :)

    I bought that card in a store in Banff, Canada, last November, where I went to attend the Solution-Focused Brief Therapy Association conference. The author of the quote is Alexandra Stoddard. I thought it summed up a lot of what I learned over the years about being a good coach… :)

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