In Training Magazine’s January/February 2013 issue, Consensus’ The Right Way to Tell Clients They Are Wrong article shares practical advice for resolving conflict.

The Right Way to Tell a Client They’re Wrong

I am a training manager who supports our organization’s most profitable business unit. Sometimes, clients – senior managers who yield a lot of power within the organization – come to me with a problem that they are facing. And, they insist on a particular course of action that they believe will address their need, but I disagree with. Yet, even though I am supposed to be the Training & Development expert, they don’t seem to listen. How can I push back and get them to listen without coming across as being insubordinate or difficult?

First off, you’re not alone. Virtually every training manager has faced a client that insisted on prescribing their own intervention instead of following our recommendation.

Thus, one step is to realize that there’s a systemic tension. That is, something that almost automatically occurs between the roles of training adviser and internal client. You, as the adviser, know the ins and outs of professional development at least as well as your client. At the same time, the client knows their business, their people, and, arguably, their objectives at least as well as you.

It’s Not Personal

Begin by suspending the question of “whose knowledge and expertise should yield more weight in the decision of what to do?” Instead, recognize that it’s not personal. Try to move away from the paradigm of “my client is a know-it-all jerk”. Move toward “by virtue of our different roles in the organization, my client and I are inclined to see things differently regarding whose information better informs this training decision.”

Jointly Explore Options

Instead of taking steps to prove that your recommendation should be adopted, step back and, together with your client, explore the merits of the various options. Use the Ladder of Inference, a conceptual tool developed by business theorist Chris Argyris. Acknowledge that you, like your client, only have processed a subset of the data available that could inform the decision. Also be aware of the assumptions you and your client each attach your respective data sets, based on your personal experiences, education, philosophies, and biases. Finally, realize that your conclusions and recommendations are based on the different data sets and the different assumptions.

Share Your Data

Avoid having a conversation centered around your respective conclusions (i.e., we should proceed this way or that way). Begin by sharing the data that you each find relevant, in turn increasing the shared data set. The addition of new data could influence your opinion, theirs, or both of yours. Next, discuss how each of you interprets the data. Be genuinely open to their analysis. Hopefully, you’ll find them being more open to yours. Last, based on a more robust data set and a more thorough exploration of different interpretations, together decide which option is best.

Be Sympathetic

Be sympathetic to your client’s potential assumption that we “training people” don’t really understand or focus on the business case. Of course, that probably isn’t an accurate assumption. In the past, your client might have dealt with training professionals who didn’t care about the business case. Or, more likely, they failed to effectively communicate their understanding of and pursuit of the business case. So, be sure to tie the proposed options to expected business results.

Show Respect

Last, show respect throughout. Yet, don’t confuse respect with blind deference or obedience. You have an obligation to your organization to pursue the best option…and sometimes that means pushing back earnestly, tactfully, and from a truly informed position.

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