In this approach the consultant helps the client to talk through their (the client’s) perception of the problem at hand. The consultant’s role is that of listener, with minimal direction as to the contents of the discussion. The consultant is quiet but attentive, non-directive but supportive, relaxed but energetic in their support for the client. The approach is one of encouraging the client to talk openly about all aspects of the issue, particularly those areas which give the client concern. It is important that the consultant resists the temptation to jump in offering thoughts and advice or be judgemental about the way the client is viewing the issue. Its purpose is to allow the consultant to gain information about the attitudes and circumstances surrounding the problem, as well as information about the issue being presented.
Situations when this approach might be appropriate
- At the very beginning of the consultancy when the consultant requires as much general information as possible to assess the possible nature of the consultancy work
- When attempting to judge if the problem presented is the ‘real’ problem
- When the consultant suspects that there might be hidden agendas in the work being offered
- To encourage the client to think through the issue and, perhaps, discover their own direction
- To encourage release of tensions felt by the client in undertaking certain aspects of the consultancy
- To give the client the opportunity to investigate any personal blockages to possible solutions
The approach is very useful for gathering information about perceptions and attitudes surrounding the issue and assessing the culture of the organisation. It also provides a useful supportive counselling role to the client.
- It can provide a great deal of information very quickly over a wide area of topics surrounding the problem
- It helps to build the feeling of ‘partnership’ between client and consultant
- It can demonstrate respect and value for the client’s ideas and concerns
- It shows concern and support for personal issues involved in tackling difficult problems
- It provides an outlet for release of tensions and fears which might not be safely expressed elsewhere in the organisation
- It can help build a trusting relationship between client and consultant
The receptive listener approach requires good listening and summarising skills, and when used to explore blockages, a competent grounding in basic counselling skills.
- If the approach does not meet the client’s expectation of the consultant’s role. The client may want a quick input to solve the problem at hand, which is why they have brought in an ‘expert’. The client may not understand or misinterpret the intentions of the consultant.
In such situations, it is important that the consultant recognises the frustrations clues, acknowledges and ‘holds’ these expectations, while encouraging the client to talk freely about the issues. The consultant should be ready to explain the purpose and structure of the approach.
- The client may take the opportunity to unburden themselves of problems totally unconnected with the consultancy contract. In this case, it may be necessary to gently return the client to the issue at hand.
- The approach is time consuming and may be perceived as ‘wasting time’.
- The client may open up to uncover deep emotions that the consultant is not qualified to deal with safely. It is essential to remain within the boundaries of the consultant’s helping skills. If you feel that the situation is becoming unmanageable for you, try to withdraw gently to an alternative approach.
The major concern for most consultants about this approach is the danger that it might become an intensive counselling exercise which they are not qualified to handle, causing damage both to the person and the consultancy. The ‘deep water’ situation should be avoided at all costs. Do not become a counsellor unless you have the skills and permission to do so. With good management, however, the approach can be used very effectively to gather valuable information without creating an intense counselling situation.