Meeting to discuss another Meeting – and other forms of nonsensical resistance

Remember the book Alice in Wonderland? Do you also remember when Alice is at the Mad Hatter’s tea party and it seems like every time Alice is about to drink her tea the Mad Hatter and the Hare say it is time to move to another chair? Poor Alice never got the opportunity to drink her tea. Now, while Alice in Wonderland is a fictional story, there are some unfortunate parallels and lessons that are relatable to consulting.

Take this scenario for example: It has been a month of back and forth with your stakeholders and administrative assistants, and you have finally somehow managed to find an hour on everyone’s calendar to set up a meeting. After the first fifteen minutes of introductions, you, as the consultant begin to lead the conversation, however as time quickly ticks by, you are finding the group is solely interested in learning about the status of the project and the next steps and you haven’t even been able to scratch the surface of your planned agenda during this meeting.

All those in attendance are still talking about the project at a high level, and instead of making decisions, they discuss what is going to happen in the future and what decisions need to be made to get the project done. You quickly look at your watch again and you’re now five minutes from having to conclude the meeting. Now you have to discuss calendars and when the group can meet again. You have just fallen into the trap known as a meeting to discuss another meeting. Nothing was accomplished and now you are prolonging your timeline. Just like Alice in Wonderland you went to the tea party but were unable to drink the tea. When the stakeholders are not willing to engage in a detailed discussion and only want to meet to discuss the next time they will all meet again, you should sense that there is opposition from your client. Identifying and understanding resistance is one of the hardest parts of consulting.

Peter Block, the author of Flawless Consulting, dedicates a chapter to understanding resistance. He identifies fourteen different forms, however in my experience working with clients as a procurement consultant, there are four forms in particular that seem to be the most common.

1. No Time to Say Hello, Goodbye. I’m Late, I’m Late, I’m Late!

Do any of these scenarios sound familiar to you?

Your client states that they are unavailable to meet this week. Then when you finally schedule time with them to meet, the client cancels the appointment.
You send the client a calendar invite and…immediately get an out of office email.
The client has a week of vacation and then another week of mandatory vacation.
You call your client to ask a question, and they answer only to tell you that they cannot respond to you at this time since they will be training the whole week.

While it may be true that your client is very busy and it is difficult for them to find time to complete their own daily tasks in addition to those from you, if you continually are not getting enough time from your client, you are encountering another form of resistance. Time is valuable, and if your client is not giving you the time required to meet, the timing may not be right for you to proceed with this project. If you don’t get the initial meeting on the calendar with your client, unfortunately you don’t even have the opportunity to have a meeting to discuss another meeting.

2. Curiouser and curiouser! 

After you have presented the report on your assigned project, it is natural that the client is going to have questions. The client has hired you to solve a problem, partnering with you for your expertise and experience, however the client also wants to understand what you found. Of course the client may be pleased to review your findings and solution, however they want to also know the source of the problem, how it can be avoided in the future, and be able to present and explain your report to their colleagues or managers.

Drawing from experience, the client may ask questions like:

Where were these numbers derived from?
What was the conversion rate you used?
Did you take qualitative aspects into account?

These types of questions are understandable, and this type of curiosity is expected. If however, after the report is presented and you have addressed the client’s initial questions, the client continues to request more detail, you should realize that this is a form of resistance.

For example, the client gets through the initial round of questions, and continues to say:  “That seems great, but can you provide me with the back-up data to show how you made these calculations?” or “Can you provide me with the invoices and data used to create your report?” This is essentially why you were hired in the first place; to help the client analyze the data and be a resource for them. If they are going to continue to ask for more detail and review all your work in-depth, you are going to constantly face resistance.

It then becomes critical for you as the consultant to address this resistance. It may be that your client does not feel fully confident in your abilities, or that they are afraid of losing control. Be sure to ask your client their reasoning for needing an immense amount of detail and how you can move forward in the project without getting bogged down on one particular detail.

3. Begin at the beginning, and go on till you come to the end: then stop!

To really understand the heart of the problem, you have to know more about our company. Our company was founded in 1982 by John Strong and his son Doug.  The client continues giving you background on the company and not actually getting to the point. It seems like every time you ask a question the client tells you another story or gives you more detail than necessary. A simple yes or no question turns into a cost benefit analysis and you seem to be getting nowhere. It’s time to face this form of resistance. While it may seem like the client wants to give you all the facts so that you can do your job, in reality they are prolonging the process and you need to get to the bottom of what is really going on.

4. Silence! Off with their heads!

You wrap-up your presentation to your client and it is quiet enough to hear a pin drop. This is quite the opposite of the client who asks lots of detailed questions or the client who wants to flood you with detail. This client is not giving you a response at all. While initially you might be inclined to see this as a good sign, don’t take the bait. Just because a client is not saying anything does not mean that they are in agreement.

If for example you email your baseline report to a client and have not heard a response back, do not take that as a sign that they client agrees with your assessment. The client might not have had time to review your report or if they did review it, they may not want to address you on it and therefore you will not actually be receiving their signature anytime soon. In order to identify this form of resistance you have to ask yourself if the client was ever genuinely enthusiastic about your project or got involved in the process. If the answer is no, then silence is a form of resistance and it will become an obstacle throughout your project.

There is always going to be some type of resistance in a project. But, in order to keep your project moving and on the right track, you have to be adept at identifying the various forms of resistance. It is one of the hardest parts of consulting, but if you do not face resistance head-on, you will not be able to build a relationship with your client and your project will suffer as a result. So the next time you are in a meeting that is turning into a discussion about calendar availability and high level details of the project, identify this as a form of resistance and have an open discussion with your client. Just like Alice had to eventually get out of Wonderland, you too have to get out of your client’s Wonderland in order to overcome resistance.

About the Author:  Nicole Mahaffey is a Project Analyst at Source One Management Services, LLC. In her role, Nicole is adept in executing strategic sourcing initiatives; conducting comprehensive research, vetting suppliers, and developing RFPs with great attention to detail. She is a proven asset in providing detailed financial analysis and creative solutions for client cost savings.