Consultancy, Coaching and Development

Receptive listener

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.

Possible risks

  • 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.


At an early stage in the consultancy the consultant must employ more structured and directive methods to obtain and analyse the information necessary to build options and make decisions.  In the analytical approach the consultant is offering ‘skills’ in identifying and handling information already held by the client, structuring informal interviews with key staff or organising a formal survey of a department or organisation.  The work may be undertaken by the individual consultant, in partnership with the client, or with the aid of additional expertise available within your organisation.

The key role for the consultant is to identify the essential information required to progress the consultancy.  Collecting too much information or irrelevant data could reduce the credibility of the consultant.

Situations where this approach might be appropriate

  • At the start of the consultancy where the client is unclear as to the nature of a particular problem
  • Where the client appears to be very clear but the results of being a receptive listener leads the consultant to doubt the conclusion reached (gaining entry to the real problem)
  • Where the client requires hard evidence to convince other of a course of action
  • Where the consultancy is about investigating the possible causes of a certain situation and options are required from which the client can determine a plan of action

Many consultancy contracts are based solely on the consultant undertaking the analyst approach.


  • It enhances the consultant’s credibility as a logical, clear thinking investigator
  • It can help the client to better identify and understand the nature of the problem
  • It can provide hard data on which to base difficult or unpopular decisions
  • It provides some safety for client in undertaking work which has uncertain outcomes
  • It helps to justify actions proposed to other members of the organisation

Possible risks

  • As it is an area which readily demonstrates the consultant’s credibility, the consultant may concentrate too much on this approach
  • It is a ‘safe’ activity for both client and consultant and therefore may be overused
  • It can be used as a way of avoiding making decisions, leading to a state of mind of ‘if in doubt, collect more information’
  • The client may resist conclusions because they do not understand the logic of the analysis, or they fear its implications
  • The client sees it as an opportunity to pass the entire problem over to the consultant and so loses ownership

To use this approach successfully the consultant needs good interviewing skills, access to good data collection techniques and an ability to influence based on sound judgement.  In some cases the client may feel threatened by the results of the analyst approach.  Supportive feedback and presentation skills are essential to deal effectively with these situations.


For many consultants this is the most difficult approach to use comfortably.  It involves the consultant confronting the client with information or feedback which could be viewed as being threatening to the client.  It is not an aggressive confrontation but invites the individual to investigate the implications of the way in which the organisation or they themselves are behaving.  In order to use challenging approach in a positive and non-destructive way the consultant needs to be satisfied that:

  • The challenge is solely for the benefit of the client and not to express the consultant’s feelings or values
  • The consultant is able and willing to continue with the challenge in the face of any defensiveness displayed by the client
  • There is sufficient evidence to justify the challenge and to believe that the outcome could be positive for the client
  • The consultant/client relationship has sufficient trust and respect to support a confrontation

Situations where this approach might be appropriate

  • Where a vital part of the consultancy contract is being breached
  • When the client’s behaviour does not reflect the culture being developed through the consultancy
  • Where the client’s behaviour is at variance with a professed value
  • When the client’s behaviour is seen to be a contributory factor to the problem
  • Where the client’s attitudes or behaviour comprises the integrity and mission of your organisation


  • It increases the openness in a consultancy relationship
  • It allows the client to re-evaluate their behaviours and attitudes
  • It encourages self-challenging behaviours
  • It tackles client blockages that might threaten the successful outcome of the consultancy

Possible risks

  • Any challenge may lead to a deterioration in the client/consultant relationship which might result in the termination of the consultancy
  • The timing of the challenge may be inappropriate
  • A client who is aware of the inadequacy but fears it being made public may well react in a way which protects their status and authority
  • The challenge may be perceived as a personal threat
  • The client may be ‘damaged’ by the challenge and lost confidence in themselves
  • The consultant may not feel confident in dealing with the emotions which a challenge might evoke
  • Insufficient data might be available to justify the approach and maintain the challenge when the client becomes defensive
  • An unsuccessful confrontation could prejudice other possible contracts within the organisation

This type of approach needs very careful preparation on the consultant’s part.  The consultant needs to be sure of the data, the intentions of the challenge, the strength of the relationship and its importance to the overall success and to consultant credibility.

The consultant also needs good counselling and feedback skills to operate this approach safely.  It is important to help the client feel supported throughout the confrontation and confirmation of the value of the client as an individual and manager is essential.  The consultant should work in a way which allows the client to explore alternatives to a current behaviour and reach their own conclusions on the benefits of adopting such alternatives.


It is a common view that the consultant’s job is to tell the client what they should do to solve their problem.  The client looks to the consultant for a recommended course of action.  Acting as a prescriber is often a comfortable role for the consultant to take.  As long as the problem falls within the consultant’s ‘expertise’, the consultant both gains credibility and meets the expectations of the client when the recommendation is successful.

There is often a tendency to go for this profile as soon as possible, and once operating in this way, to stay within the profile for as long as possible.  The prescriber approach can be very seductive, but it also has dangers for the consultant.

Situations where this approach might be appropriate

  • When used to gain entry to a much larger piece of consultancy work
  • Where the contracted work requires technical expertise which the client does not have
  • Where interim action is needed while the real problem is investigated
  • When the client’s anxieties are such that the consultant judges that responsibilities for solving the problem need to be taken from the client temporarily


  • It demonstrates the technical expertise of the consultant
  • It builds the consultant’s credibility as a useful resource and problem solver
  • It can appear to be very time-effective and thereby reduce costs to the client
  • If successful, it can quickly generate repeat work
  • The consultant can retain control of the direction of the work

Possible risks

  • The consultant takes responsibility for solving the problem
  • There may not be a ‘right’ answer to the problem
  • The consultant may be providing an effective solution, but not tackling the ‘real’ problem
  • The consultant may not have essential information won which to base effective recommendations
  • The client may reject the course of action
  • The client will become dependent on the consultant and therefore not develop their own skills
  • The consultant may become a ‘scapegoat’ who is used to make recommendations which the client knows will be unpopular with other members of staff
  • For political reasons the consultant may be set up to fail. If an expert cannot find the right answer, why should management be criticised for not succeeding in the past?
  • The consultant can become locked into a pressurised win-lose situation

Most consultants feel comfortable with the prescribed approach and believe it is what the client expects of them.  Indeed, it is essential to the credibility of consultants in many situations.  There are, however, a number of guidelines which might be useful in helping to avoid many of the pitfalls inherent in this approach.

Guidelines for the prescriptive approach

  • Avoid jumping to ‘obvious’ conclusions early in the consultancy
  • Take time in thoroughly investigating the initial problem that is presented
  • Reassure the client’s expectations and anxieties without being rushed into a quick recommendation
  • Take every opportunity to involve the client in each stage of investigating the problem
  • Where possible, present well prepared options rather than one course of action
  • Work to build a trusting relationship with the client and seek to build their knowledge and confidence

Subject expertise is essential to a successful prescriptive profile, but skills involving problem identification, listening, assertiveness and building relationships are also important to protecting the credibility of the consultancy.


In this approach the consultant shares the theory and practical experience behind a recommendation to help the client understand better the pros and cons of adopting certain courses of action.  Essentially, the consultant acts a coach to the client, providing a deeper understanding of the principles involved in the issue than just the essentials for the client’s immediate situation.

Situations where this approach might be appropriate

  • Where the client’s resistance to a specific course of action is a result of not really understanding the basis on which it has been recommended
  • When a deeper understanding might help the client make a better choice between options
  • Where the client may be required to use the approach in different situations after the consultancy has ended
  • Where the client may later need to train others to use and develop the course of action
  • Where the client has expressed an interest in using the situation to develop their own skills and understanding
  • Where a theory-based approach matches an individual client’s preferred learning style


  • It can demonstrate the consultant’s depth of knowledge and ability to think wider than the immediate situation
  • It aids a client’s personal learning and development
  • It can enhance applicability and encourage the client to build on and adapt the theory used
  • It can leave the client in a stronger position to convince others of the applicability of the chosen course of action

Possible risks

  • The client may have no interest in the theory behind the action and so they become frustrated
  • The client may not understand the theory and become confused, which might block their ability to make a choice between options
  • The client may not understand the theory and develop feelings of inadequacy in tackling the whole problem
  • The consultant may only have a sketchy knowledge of the theory and may get ‘caught out’, thereby damaging credibility
  • The consultant may have to choose between a number of theories, none of which might be totally applicable and some of which could be conflicting
  • Over theorising can lead away from finding a practical solution to the problem at hand
  • Many consultants do not see themselves as being theory based and feel threatened by the need to keep up to date with current developments

The critical issue in adopting this approach is that it should only be adopted after checking with the client that it would be useful.  There is always the danger that the consultant uses the coach profile primarily to demonstrate the consultant’s knowledge or as a means to persuade the client to accept their ideas.  Used inappropriately, the coaching approach can pose a threat to the consultant/client relationship.