HYCS #35 – Why You Want Your Client to Reject Your (Data) Feedback

HYCS #35 – Why You Want Your Client to Reject Your (Data) Feedback

Why does so much feedback have so little effect?  Why does the “big reveal” so often fail to bring your clients to their feet applauding, or send them to their knees weeping?  The answer lies in the way common kitchen appliances work.

Why doesn’t your microwave explode when you plug it in?   If you stuck your finger in that same electrical socket, you’d be a goner.   And what about your electric dryer?  It’s plugged into an even more lethal electrical circuit, yet it dries load after load of clothes, unfazed by all the power ripping through it.

The answer is resistance.  Every appliance has a circuit that’s constructed like an obstacle course.  The circuit shapes and tinkers with the electrical current so it won’t cause the motor that powers the dryer to burst into flame.  The circuit is designed to protect the appliance.

People have those circuits too.  We use them to shape incoming information so it doesn’t blow a hole in our brains.

When a consultant shows up full of data with a big smile on their face, a client is already quietly freaking out.  They may love the information, and agree with every bit of it.  And the resistant circuit that is their knowledge of what your data means for their organization will contract so hard that your client will start to act funny.   Lucky for us, “acting funny” unfolds in a very predictable cascade.  I think of it as the 5 Gates the brain has to pass through before it can learn and change:

The 5 Gates of Change

Gate 1:  Reverse blame.   It’s the data collection technique that invalidates the data you got, or the people you did or didn’t talk to.  It’s the way you spoke to or didn’t speak to people, the way you crunched or didn’t crunch the numbers, interpreted the data, drew the graph, didn’t use a graph, the font, the delivery, the zzzzzzzzzzz….goodness, I must have dozed off.

It’s tempting to get your back up during this initial response.  You want to argue, defend, and remind them that they agreed to every step of this process.


Your job is to stay out of the way while they work this big glop of information through their protective circuit.  Paraphrase.  Be silent.  Paraphrase again.  Wait until you hear this:

Gate 2:  Intellectualize or minimize.  When they say something like “I bet a lot of the organizations you deal with are much, much worse,” or “I’m sure this is typical for organizations of our size, rejoice.  The glop has passed through the first gate in their circuit.  They are beginning to grapple with the data by making it smaller and easier to gloss over.

Your task here is to be Switzerland:  Neutral.  Simply smile and paraphrase, then be silent.  You might say  “It may be a bit too early for conclusions.  Let’s keep looking at the data the thinking about what it’s telling us.”  Or, you can borrow my favorite line from the public radio show “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me:”  “It could be that, or it could be something else.”  Encourage them to stay open.

Gate 3:  Argue intent versus effect.  This is a refusal to acknowledge that something you’re doing is having an unintended effect. You can’t stop defending your pure intent long enough to see the difficulty your choices have caused others.  It’s a lack of compassion that causes this blindness, and an open heart and mind that cures it.  Many, many organizational projects (and relationships) fail to pass through this gate.  At this gate you’ll hear:  “But this data doesn’t reflect our values.”  Or, “This data just doesn’t feel like our company.”  “It seems as though the people you spoke with didn’t understand what we were trying to do.”

Accepting the gap between what we intend and how our choices affect others is a breakthrough moment.  Slow down here and say, “I wonder if there’s another way to look at what the data is showing us?”

Gate 4: Blame self/Admit guilt.  This is a last-ditch attempt to avoid the awful truth:  Your behavior has to change.  The executive committee has to pony up the money for the wellness program.  Everyone needs to get up and move around more.  The CEO has to admit that last acquisition was a disaster, the manager has to own up to making a series of bad hires.  You’ll hear, “We always do that.”  “That’s the way our culture is here.”  This is an artful dodge:  Admitting guilt is not the same as accepting responsibility.

It may be time for some gentle provocation in the form of a closed-ended question:  “Are you satisfied with maintaining the status quo?”  Paraphrasing may be a better option “Your company culture does not support wellness,” or Your company culture does not support admitting mistakes.”  Then be silent.  The silence after the paraphrase or question is the most powerful part.

Gate 5: Listen/Hear.  The new, protective circuit has started to work.  “Alright, we don’t do wellness here.  I can see how our choices have sent a mixed message to employees.  Are we ready to change that?”  Or “I am having trouble understanding how we could do every step right and still end up with such a disastrous decision.  How will we recover from this?”

Learning from the data and deciding to change their behavior only comes after they have worked themselves through the 5 gates.  This is not something you can do for them, or help them with.  You can only hold the space for them to do it in, and make sure nothing interferes with their process.  Especially not you.  It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.

The beauty and power of not interfering with your client’s process, and of not pushing them or telling them the answer will take your breath away.  When they have assimilated all the data in the way they can manage it, you will not believe the honest, profound, caring things that will fall out of their mouths.

This is why I’m obsessed with paraphrasing and open-ended questions.  These are not silly techniques or “basic” communication.  They are a crucial discipline for staying out of our client’s business, supporting them in doing their own work, and keeping our egos out of it.


I’m recommitting to that simple practices of paraphrasing, open-ended questions and silent waiting.  Join me?