Years ago, I was partnering with our organization’s IT team to outfit a new computer lab. There were a lot of details to work out. I was approaching the project with the learner in mind. My IT counterpart was focused on minimizing the cables that would be crisscrossing the room. Unfortunately, my want for the learner was not lining up with his want for the scope of work needed to get the lab ready.
After a few conversations that seemed to go nowhere, I remember looking at my colleague and asking, “Is it that you can’t do it or that you don’t want to do?” He looked at me stunned and admitted, “I don’t want to.”
It was a real breakthrough moment in our work together. The resistance I was feeling was laid bare and we finally were able to work together to get the lab built. In the end, it looked a bit different for both of us, but it worked and worked well.
At the time, I didn’t realize that we were in the middle of a foundational part of consulting. We were contracting and admittedly not very well. We were stuck and I knew we were stuck because neither of us were willing to move away from what “I want” with little consideration for what the other person might want as well.
Thankfully, we did eventually move past our persistent resistance. The lesson learned however is that it didn’t happen by accident. I had to walk directly into the resistance and be prepared for what might happen. I’m not so sure I did it perfectly, but it was effective. Once I acknowledged the resistance, we were able to have productive and collaborative conversations so we could get the job done.
From that point forward our conversations changed. We started listening and stopped trying to have “my way be the only way.” It was not easy to do. I was the customer and I consistently had to battle the feeling that he should “just be doing what I want.” As I look back now, I realize that I wanted a pair of hands to do my bidding. It’s funny really, I’m no IT expert, but I certainly tried to play one. At the same time, he was doing very little to understand what I needed to do and why. There was little effort to understand the problem I was trying to solve. After all, he was the expert with all the answers, right?
The experience highlights the greatest challenge most of us face as internal consultants. And, make no mistake, you are consulting any time you must influence another person where you have no direct control. I had none with my IT counterpart and he had none with me. We were giving no thought to influencing the other. Instead, we were on the “do it my way” train. It’s a wonder the computer lab was ever finished.
Our relationship only started working when we started looking at it as a relationship. We shifted away from listing our demands to a conversation about what we both wanted from our work together and what we were willing to give the other to help make it successful. There was negotiation, but we became clearer in not only what we were trying to accomplish together but how we were going to do it. And I’m not just talking about the technical stuff. We also talked about the way we would communicate with each other, how best to respect the other person’s ideas and even how we would disagree moving forward.
It was never a match made in heaven, but we made it work. Chances are, you must make it work everyday at work too. When you do, ask if you’ve taken the time to contract with each other on the “what and how” of your collaboration? If you don’t know, there’s work to do. Ask the question, “So, what do you want from me?” and be prepared to share what you want from them too. Be simple, be direct and above all else, be real. You won’t always get what you want. Life is like that. But you will get further, faster when you both know how to show up for the other.