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The Games Clients Play on Consultants

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The environment of the consultant is the world of clients and prospective clients. And this environment is not a friendly one psychologically. Indeed, it is often downright hostile. Hostility is anger unperceived by the person experiencing it and usually by the person receiving it.

Unbeknownst consciously to most clients and prospective clients, they look upon consultants with disfavor. This is so for the following reasons:
  1. No one likes to feel helpless in the face of someone else's expertise. We all seem to feel that we should know everything in this "do-it-yourself society. So the consultant is resented.
  2. The principal of any organization feels that his payroll is high enough to expect that his staff should have the expertise to handle all his problems as well as all contingencies.
  3. It is commonly known that the consultant's services are required because of his experience, not because of formal training or degrees conferred. Why, then, muses the client, does the consultant have the effrontery to charge fees equal to those of doctors, dentists, psychiatrists, certified public accountants, and lawyers? How dare he?
  4. The client feels that the money spent on a consultant could and should be used to train his staff to handle these unruly situations. This would be more of an investment for the future, not a one-time expense.
  5. "My God," said one executive vice-president to his staff, after reading a requested proposal from a management consulting firm, "Do we now have to hire someone to think for us, too?"
The late Dr. Eric Berne wrote one of the most mutative psychology books of the century. It was called The Games People Play. Later, Dr. Thomas Harris, who might be considered a disciple of Dr. Berne, wrote a bestseller called I'm O.K., You're O.K. Dr. Harris explained the games people play in the popular terms of "transactional analysis." All of these "games" referred to are hostile ones, engendered by a temporary or permanent aberration of the player. The thrust of both books is that, as aware adults, we needn't play these games with those people. The difficulty lies in recognizing the games -and the hostility behind them-for what they are.

At the time that I'm O.K., You're O.K. was released, the publisher, Harper & Row, was my client. I, therefore, had the good fortune to attend the pre-publication sales/editorial meeting at which Dr. Harris, accompanied by his wife, explained his theories to us personally. He did this by enacting small skits with Mrs. Harris thus:

Dr. H: Dear, where did you hide my cufflinks? Mrs. H: I didn't hide anything. They're just where you put them, stupid!

Dr. Harris then explained that his query of where Mrs. Harris hid his cufflinks was a hostile one-a game he was playing as a manifestation of whatever was bothering him at the time. His wife fell into the trap of playing his game by answering him in kind-hostilely. They then re-ran the skit with Mrs. Harris fully aware and in control of the situation, refusing to play:

Dr. H: Dear, where did you hide my cufflinks? Mrs. H: They are in the top drawer of your bureau, to the right of your socks.

The situation was then reversed in order to show that anyone can become a hostile game player at any time:

Dr. H: Dear, have you seen my cufflinks? Mrs. H: Who do you think I am, your nursemaid?

At this point, Dr. Harris explained that he could have played his wife's game by telling her to take a flying leap, but he preferred not to, since he was aware that something was bothering her that had absolutely nothing to do with the situation at hand or with him. He refused to take it personally.

One of my closest friends is a prominent Freudian psychoanalyst in my city. One day several years ago over lunch, he mused aloud that, if his patients listened to and understood an instruction he gave them in the early sessions, they would never need all the years of the heart-breaking pain and expense of the psychoanalytic process. I sat forward and eagerly asked him what that key principle is. "Don't take it personally" he said, "but my patients don't understand the simplicity and truth of this." 'What,' exclaimed a patient just yesterday, 'how can you tell me not to take it personally, when my own mother told me when I was ten years old at the beach to swim out into the ocean and not swim back? How could I not take that personally?' I explained that her mother's statement manifested parental abnormality and illness, and that her mother would have said that to any child she had, even if it were Shirley Temple. That's what I mean by not taking it personally."

Case History # 1

I had just completed a very successful assignment for a client who favored me. His praise was unstinting. He asked me to follow up with another assignment, and requested a price. I told him $4,000. The next day, he telephoned and offered me $2,000. I was furious. My stream of consciousness ran thus: "How dare he treat me that way? His organization is loaded with money - two million dollars for this project alone. He did not quibble with the price of the first assignment ($8,000). He admitted that I had done an excellent job, so he is aware of my credentials and expertise. It would be different if I were a stranger off the street soliciting an assignment. He's got a helluva lot of nerve!" So I told him in an irate voice, "Not only won't I do the job for $2,000; I wouldn't do it for you for $3,995." And I slammed down the receiver-forever closing the door to any further assignments from that organization.

What happened? I took it personally. Perhaps this man had just had a dressing down from his comptroller. Perhaps he had just had an argument with his wife. Perhaps he was constipated! Whatever the matter was, he would have treated any consultant's fee estimate in a like manner.

Had I learned the lesson of "Don't take it personally," I would have told him that I could perform the work for $2,000, since that was his budgetary constraint, but that I would necessarily have to spend less time on the project. He would have accepted this. He would have been grateful for the "favor" I was doing him. I would have been awarded the assignment and kept a client.

Case History #2

My client was the publisher of a prestigious national magazine. I noticed that his manner with me in person and on the phone was extremely quixotic. At times, he was effusive and charming. At times he was downright abusive. It was the latter, of course, that upset me. I used to hang up the phone or leave his office and wonder what I had said or done wrong, unprofessional, or even offensive. But I never came up with anything that remotely made any sense. I analyzed the situation further and discovered a pattern. The man was only abusive in the morning. A few diplomatically placed questions of his staff, and I learned the man was an alcoholic. I know now, going into a situation, not to take these things personally - especially when I know that I am functioning well and in a thoroughly professional manner.

This kind of hostility comes at you in many different ways. When you have completed the assignment and done your job well, and the client refuses to pay your bill, don't take it personally by heating up a one-on-one argument. He isn't paying anyone's bill if he can help it. Turn the matter over for collection in the most impersonal way. When the prospective client neglects to inform you that your excellent proposal has been turned down, don't get upset. He didn't inform the other denied consultants either. He's an impolite, inconsiderate bastard - but not just to you.
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