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Articles - Choosing an Advisor - Consultant in the Family - Business

Making the most out of psychological consultation

Monday, August 19, 1996




By Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., P.S.


The other day, a client came into my office and sat down in the rocking chair, she crossed her arms and asked, "Well, what do you want me to talk about today?"

Her response reminds me that many clients of professional consultation, particularly psychological consultation, do not know how to use the consultant's time. Paula's questions reveals her belief that the consultant is in complete charge of the relationship, can read her mind, and has ready advice for every contingency.

It is understandable that people put this much power into the hands of their consultants. If you have a problem that is overwhelming, it somehow feels safer to let someone else be in charge of the solution.

The problem is that you the client/business owner have to make the decisions about your life and work. As Harry Truman said, "The buck stops here." No one other than yourself can ultimately decide your proper course of action.

Psychologists know from our research that people will take credit for their successes and blame someone else for their failures. What most people don't realize is that if you are brave enough to take full responsibility for all of your decisions, whether or not they were guided by a consultant, you have much more of a chance of success.

Because you are noticing all of you little and big failures along the way, you stand a better chance of correcting the problems before a crisis erupts.

Too often I am confronted with clients who have waited until the top has blown off the project. They are desperate. They want immediate solutions. They often get disgruntled with the consultative process because we are taking time to repair damage before we can move to more proactive work. If as the client or business owner you are ready to face your weaknesses as well as your strengths, if you are ready to admit your ignorance, the consultant can step in sooner to help you.

If you view each failure as only feedback, you will be operated as the cybernetic system you were designed to be. Get your Ego out of the way. Admit your ignorance. Use skills creatively. Use your employees creatively. Be open to solutions that at first sound ridiculous. They may sound ridiculous because you haven't had time to expand your consciousness to include new ideas.

The consultant's job, if they are doing their job, is more process oriented than task oriented. While you may want the advice or labor of our consultant regarding tasks that you are not skilled to handle, the consultant can help you best by getting you to think and use your own talents toward the solution.

Your lawyer cannot writ up a will without knowing your wishes specifically. Your CPS cannot advise on investment of even tax planning without understanding your financial objectives. Your Organization Development Psychologist cannot guide you in those tricky interpersonal problems without knowing how you and your personnel fee.

Knowing that you are really the decision-maker makes it a lot easier to take charge of the consultative process and ask the questions that need asking. Don't be afraid to ask a stupid question.

Slow your consultant down and ask for clear explanations and rationale for their recommendations. The psychologist is an expert in her field and may not realize that you don't understand her jargon or thought process. You are paying the psychologist for her education, knowledge and expertise, and to help you make the best decision for yourself, your family and your company.

Finally, if you are going to benefit by the use of a consultant, be prepared to do some hard work. Change is not an easy process. Just as when you first learned to drive a car, you have to be aware of every little move if you are to change your behavior and business organization or strategies. Now, driving a car is so automatic that your rarely remember the time between putting the key into the ignition and arriving at your destination. But at one time it took every ounce of concentration you had to master the ignition, the clutch, the rearview mirror, the brakes, the accelerator, the odometer, and so on.

The psychologist/consultant assists and guides in the process of change, but it is up to you to do the work. It is also up to you to refine the advice of your consultant to fit your unique situation. Things may sound good on paper, but in practice may need a little modification.

Psychologists know from our research that if too much time lapses between the consultation and taking action, the person will not do the required work in order to change. Take the time to put into practice what your consultant and you have decided. Notice where it works and where it doesn't. Then keep modifying until you have a system that fits you perfectly.

Process consultation is a valuable contribution to your business. The psychologist can open your thinking in directions you never thought of before.

For example, two brothers were arguing bitterly about how to manage their landscaping business. In terms of skills they were ideally suited to be partners. One was the landscape architect; the other had the sales skills and business management savvy.

They had also grown up with the business and inherited it when their father died. Nevertheless there were constant arguments about how to handle clients, employees, investments, and so on. The trust between the two brothers/business partners was shattered.

The brothers finally turned to a psychologist when their business consultant, attorney, and CPA failed to find a resolution. The psychologist helped the brothers recognize that while they loved each other as brothers, their lack of common interests and values make it difficult to be business partners. In other words if they had not been brothers, they may never have chosen each other as friends of business partners.

The psychologist also helped them to get over feeling guilty for breaking up the family and the family business that Dad had founded. Each was able to move on as an independent landscape contractor with his own business modeled after his own distinct personality. Now they can socialize as brothers, attend family functions and even refer each other business.

Psychological consultation is probably the most intricate form of consultation you will engage in. The focus is more on how you communicate and make decisions than on what you say or do. Many decisions and relationships can be much improved by changing the how or the process. If the two brothers had maintained their old method of relating they would have destroyed their relationship, the business or both. As a result of being willing to consider other methods of defining a family and a family/business, the brothers were able to transform themselves to amore productive and happier level of functioning.