Over 15 years in consulting, I’ve developed an approach to consulting that works well for me. Consulting is ultimately about helping people achieve a deeper understanding and using your expertise to guide them. Doing so successfully requires more than just technical expertise, but also building understanding and forging a connection with your client. Having a structured approach to this process proves helpful, and I’ve found myself making similar moves again and again. Here, I’ll summarize the technique, I call Dialectical Consulting.
As you’d expect, I view this approach as applying dialectical thinking to consulting in a repeatable way. Dialectical thinking is a method of understanding and resolving contradictions in ideas or viewpoints, through stages of Thesis (an initial position), Antithesis (a counter-position), and Synthesis (a resolution reconciling the two). This process helps create a more nuanced understanding by integrating different perspectives.
This process allows me to leverage my expertise to guide clients to insight. My expertise is the bedrock for providing alternative perspectives and strategic counterbalance to their initial understandings. Through exploring tensions and finding common ground, I aim to achieve composite insights that speak to the client’s goals while expanding their understanding.
Clients come to us with problems they want solved. But often, the problem they think they have isn’t the problem they actually have. Sometimes it’s because they don’t know their situation well enough. Other times, it’s because they lack skill or knowledge in the problem area, which leads to misdiagnosis or misunderstanding. Sometimes they’re skilled and knowledgeable, but stuck in a rut and need an alternative perspective.
Dialectical Consulting in Three Parts
Dialectical consulting offers a repeatable pattern to harness creativity, driving progress and momentum. It’s composed of three parts:
- Empathetic Understanding (Thesis) – Get to know your client or clients, and build empathy with them. Seek a comprehensive grasp of a client’s goals, needs, emotional state, and worldview, for a rich relational context of collaboration.
- Strategic Counterbalance (Antithesis) – Leverage your Bedrock of Expertise to provide alternative perspectives that challenge and potentially augment the client’s initial understandings and biases. This allows us to offer compelling, actionable alternatives, not just to oppose but to enrich.
- These two elements find Synthesis in what I call Composite Insight — a unified, actionable vision born from the melding of the client’s needs and the consultant’s expert insights. This enables the achievement of the client’s goals while deepening their insight and explaining both why they’re right and where there’s a better way.
Putting Them Into Practice
Achieving empathetic understanding is a true act of empathy. You must spend time with the client and connect with them. That means you must learn what’s important to them, to whom they’re accountable, and what is important to those people. Find out what they hope to achieve; how they see the world, and their situation/ What are their frustrations, and what are their fears? As in Design Thinking, step one is to build empathy and understanding.
From this understanding, begin to brainstorm alternative framing and connections with concepts that bring structure to your domain of expertise. And, explore different models for analysis and explanation of their situation. Build a framework and plan to help accomplish success for the client that you believe in and can put yourself behind. This strategic counterbalance is a guidepost, even if it sometimes contrasts with your client’s expectations.
Examine those tensions closely, but also look for areas of alignment. Consider how to reframe the situation, pull in concepts from your area of expertise, another domain, or even metaphors that help you tell a story for how to move forward. Formulate a composite insight through iterative exploration and combination of these ideas, tensions, connections, and analogies. As a result, you’ll have a synthesized vision for how to proceed, how to best deliver for your client, and how to best frame/present that vision to them.
Introduction to the Client
Initiating an effective dialogue paves the way for collaboration. Consulting, in its most potent form, is not a monologue. It’s a dance of ideas between the consultant and the client. Each party contributes, challenging, and ultimately co-creating the outcome.
The way I introduce the composite onsight to the client is not just about presenting our ideas and synthesis. I weave a narrative that intertwines our expertise with the client’s unique narrative of challenges, desires, and ambitions. This ensures we’re addressing their concerns head-on and that they feel part of every decision we make and each direction we take.
The nature of the composite onsight is critical to this process: it serves as a nucleus for our shared understanding. More than a pre-packaged solution, this is a dynamic and tailored perspective. It emerges from the depths of our expertise but remains inherently shaped by the client’s context. It marries our technical prowess to the client’s unique context, crafting a solution that resonates deeply.
Having laid the groundwork with the composite onsight and using our tailored communication strategy, we strive to align with the client. Reaching cognitive resonance is akin to striking a harmonious chord. It goes beyond agreement. It represents a moment where our expert advice melds seamlessly with the client’s own intuition, experiences, and objectives. They don’t just acknowledge our perspective; they see its merits, appreciate its depth, and trust its direction.
Successful outcomes often necessitate shifting the clients’ perspective. This can be tricky because clients can get defensive when challenged in a too direct, critical way. Cognitive resonance helps with this. Rather than telling the client they’re wrong or capitulating to their view, it enables constructive reframing. Instead, draw the client to the new perspective and composite insight because it aligns well with their goals and inspires trust in the consultant.
We’re not bending the client’s perception but gently guiding it. We introduce them to alternative vantage points, expanding their horizon and helping them appreciate the multi-faceted nature of their challenges. By shedding light on different facets of the issue, we make them receptive to insights they might initially have resisted.
In this collaboration, our sensitivity to the client’s feedback remains paramount. We’re not just introducing the composite insight; we’re sculpting it in real-time, refining its contours based on the client’s reactions, insights, and priorities.
In the end, presenting the composite insight goes beyond a mere presentation — it’s a confluence. Our expert knowledge guides the path, and the client’s invaluable context informs our journey. Together, we coalesce around a vision that addresses the present challenges and lays the groundwork for future synergies.
Imagine a hypothetical firm called LegacyTech. Despite seeing the broader market shift, they’re hesitant about moving from their tried-and-true systems to newer cloud infrastructure. Their fears are rooted in potential data loss, operational disruptions, and the steep learning curve for their longstanding employees.
Through empathetic understanding, we fully grasp their reservations. By introducing strategic counterbalance, we can shed light on the potential pitfalls of clinging to outdated systems, juxtaposed with the myriad benefits of modern cloud solutions. A composite onsight emerges from this dialogue: a proposal for a phased migration, beginning with less critical processes. This approach allows LegacyTech to dip its toes into modernization, easing the transition by integrating tools that feel familiar to the company’s staff.
When this strategy is presented to LegacyTech, it isn’t just a pitch of new tech. It’s a narrative interweaving their reservations with the vast possibilities that lie ahead. Demonstrations of the new infrastructure’s capabilities, paired with projected cost savings and enhanced efficiencies, pave the way for cognitive resonance. They don’t merely see our perspective as another option; they envision the transformative potential for their operations. This visualization helps the company shift from apprehension to anticipation of the change.
Dialectical Consulting is not a departure but an evolution. Rooted in years of practical experience, it offers a structured yet flexible framework to not just solve today’s challenges but also establish a foundation for future collaborative successes. This approach allows us to go beyond mere problem-solving and enter the realm of visionary planning — a space where true collaborative success lies.