When Consultants Get Seduced
Updated: Jul 9, 2019
January 16, 2018 - Marisa Guerin, PhD
Have you noticed how often consultants over-identify with their clients? Being held in a position of expertise or wisdom is seductive -- it can make it easy to cross that line. However, taking up an identity "inside" the client boundary is a no-no! How can you tell if that's happening, and why does it matter?
Watch your language
My internal alarm bells go off when I find myself speaking or acting as if I were the client, not the consultant. One simple and very revealing way to monitor the consultant’s internal boundary stance is to pay attention to whether the consultant is properly or improperly using the words “we” and “you” in conversations within client systems. For example:
“Since we don’t have enough resources to tackle all of these program options, we’ll have to make some choices and set priorities for the organization.”
“Since your resources are limited, I hope we can work together effectively so that you can make the choices that are necessary about which program options should be tackled first.”
It is unsettling how many times consultants use “we” inappropriately when speaking of client systems! I may be excessively rigorous in my monitoring of language in this way -- however, I am fairly certain that the mental model this kind of language reveals is one in which the consultant has “entered” the client system across a boundary that will create difficulty down the line.
Why would this be problematic?
There are two reasons – one related to integrity, and one related to effectiveness.
The integrity issue arises because, by using the language of “we,” the consultant emphasizes a shared investment in the situation. This may be somewhat true at an emotional level because of the caring relationships involved, but it is definitely not true when it comes to the ultimate stakes involved. The organization will sink or swim on its own – but the consultant does not sink or swim with them. When the consultant speaks of “we” and holds the privilege of advising or influencing the organization, this places the listeners in an artificial relationship that confuses the consultant's role with the actual authority and responsibility that they, the clients, hold. A client-consultant relationship with integrity operates on the basis of mutuality and collaboration in which each party remembers its own scope of responsibility.
The effectiveness issue arises because sooner or later, a consultant who has unconsciously “joined” the client organization will lose the objectivity and perceived neutrality that is essential to their continued value. It goes without saying that the client needs to know that the consultant is caring, committed, and willing to be a partner in challenging work – but if the consultant were to become like another member of the system, something important will have been lost, especially when it comes to being able to speak truth to power.
Maintaining the respectful stance of a partner, not an insider, makes possible the paradox of consulting with integrity: namely, one gains greater, not lesser, trust when one is willing to risk the displeasure of the client in order to raise up a difficult issue.
The art of consulting involves maintaining this complex relationship in a careful and disciplined way: respecting the boundary, and at the same time connecting to the client with great care for them and the problems for which they are seeking help.*
*Edited excerpt from "The Repair of the Container: Honoring the Client-Consultant Relationship (and Resisting Seduction)" by Marisa Guerin PhD Updated, 2018