The Indigestible Truth (or the Meaning of Lunch)

Someone has startled me out of some lazy habits of thought. Hopefully some other habits will change as a result.

Jaeny Baik was in Toronto on business and I had the opportunity to talk with her over a pub lunch. Our casual conversation was loaded with unexpected meaning, for me at least.

She helps people present themselves on camera in ways that reveal who they are and what’s important to them. It’s not what comes out of the camera that preoccupies her, it’s what goes in. In order for her clients to convey effective messages about their companies, community initiatives, or their own careers, they need to change how they think and feel about themselves.

We traded stories, as consultants do, to explain the nature of our work. On the surface these examples had little in common. NetGain works on organizational change whereas Jaeny works on individual goals. However, they started to converge around themes of personal growth that are at the centre of her practice. This made me listen in a different way.

Her clients want to reveal themselves, but like most of us, have developed ingenious strategies for obscuring who they really are and what they really care about. They want to speak with authentic passion and enthusiasm but are held back by self-doubt. When they break through these constraints, they not only liberate their talents, they feel emotional relief. That’s an oversimplification, I know, but it gives a sense of the inward change needed to improve what may seem, like a recorded video message, to be a relatively superficial outward form of expression.

Of course, the same struggles occur in the lives of my clients. We may work for organizations, but within their structures and systems every critical decision is made one person at a time. Each of them has a stake in the outcomes of these decisions, and the more they care about their work, the more personal that stake is. Many of our clients devote long hours for relatively little pay to pursue goals that are deeply important to them. It’s a defining characteristic of the non-profit world and of civil service at its best. For them, for me, and I suspect for Jaeny, the divide between personal and professional aspirations gets lost at times.

Jaeny helped me remember this. Our conversation made me reflect on the degree to which our success has depended on helping to overcome fear of change. Emotions are not experienced institutionally. Organizations don’t have the capacity for fear, but their people do, and we ignore this at our peril. When clients resist change, objectively positive change, change that is good for them and their organizations… change that they’ve paid for! … we (not 'they') have fallen short of the goal.

I entertain people with rants about the irrationality of client behavior sometimes. It’s a smug way of relieving frustration at the expense of others. Listening to Jaeny talk about her work made me think about how this irrationality gives our professional lives meaning. What’s more irrational than my clients’ behavior is my complaining about it. The truth is that I’m drawn to the challenges it creates.

Years of experience in broadcast journalism have made her very direct and concise. I am neither. Her demeanor is open and confident. Without apparent effort, complex issues are reduced to simple arguments. She seems to exemplify the openness and clarity she recommends to others. This put me at a disadvantage on points of disagreement between us. She challenged and provoked me in a light-handed way that I imagine her clients would recognize.

The value of her practice is obvious to me after only this slight acquaintance. Her business is built entirely on a human need that is often neglected in my field. It’s not enough for us to isolate the right problem and present the right solution, as if the sheer force of reason might accomplish something. Unless I pay greater attention to the personal strengths and vulnerabilities of decision-makers, I’ll have a harder time persuading them of the need for change in the plans and practices of their organizations. This may seem like a trite observation, but it’s commonly overlooked in consulting practice.

More troubling still is the reminder of how self-perceptions and doubts influence my own behavior. A career of diagnosing and treating other people’s problems allows you to ignore your own. Now that my sense of superiority has been shaken, what do I replace it with?

Lunch, anyone?

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