Negotiation Skills: Negotiating to Give Good Advice

By — on / Negotiation Skills

Adapted from “Negotiating to Give Good Advice,” first published in the April 2010 issue of Negotiation.

Many of us advise others on the job yet fail to plan adequately for this responsibility. Set up a strong relationship by negotiating your role as advisor.

Name-calling, backstabbing, and turf wars erupted among President Barack Obama’s civilian and military advisors in 2009, as he tried to devise a strategy for ending the war in Afghanistan, writes journalist Bob Woodward in his recent book, Obama’s Wars (Simon & Schuster, 2010).

Granted extensive access to Obama and members of his administration, Woodward depicts a power struggle that caused the president to lash out at his advisors in frustration at times. As Woodward’s book suggests, advisors can be as much a headache as a help.

Yet consider that almost all of us are responsible for advising others during the course of our work lives. For members of some professions, including business consultants, lawyers, and doctors, advising is a primary task. For others, ranging from salespeople to teachers to managers, advising is an integral part of the job, though not always recognized as such.

Whether you spend most or just a fraction of your workday advising others, it pays to reconsider how you approach your advisees, writes Tufts University professor Jeswald W. Salacuse in his book The Wise Advisor: What Every Professional Should Know About Consulting and Counseling (Praeger, 2000). In fact, as Obama’s decision-making process for the Afghan war suggests, when advisors and their clients clash over expectations and assignments, the results can be frustrating for everyone.

By negotiating your role with your client up front, suggests Salacuse in The Wise Advisor, you can lay the foundation for a productive relationship.

A dynamic relationship

Salacuse defines advice as a communication from one person (the advisor) to another (the client) that is intended to help deter mine a course of action for solving a problem. A key feature of advice is that the client may either accept or reject it.

Far more than just the delivery of information, advising is a two-way relationship that requires the active participation of both advisor and client, writes Salacuse. At times advisors serve as directors, guiding the client through the problem at hand, as in the case of an oncologist who must educate a patient about his disease and recommend treatment options. At other times, the advisor is more like a servant who must respond to the client’s numerous demands and perhaps compete for the client’s attention.

Obama’s advisors fell into this category as the president made decisions regarding the war in Afghanistan. A third course is for the advisor and the client to act as partners, jointly managing the advisory process by drawing on complementary knowledge and skills. An architect who is hired to design a house for a client with an artistic background might find that the two become equal partners in the project.

Finally, advisors can be relatively involved or uninvolved in the implementation of their advice. Surgeons implement the advice they give their patients, for example; psychotherapists do not.

Negotiate your role

A common mistake many advisors make is to assume they should simply tell clients what to expect from them. By contrast, experienced advisors understand that their role needs to be negotiated. Salacuse recommends asking a prospective client, “How do you think I can help you?” and then listening closely to the answer.

Why is it important to negotiate your role as advisor up front? Most obviously, your role determines the strategy you’ll take toward the client’s problem and how you will focus your energy, time, and talents, according to Salacuse. Imagine that a potential client has approached a marketing consultant about building the firm’s social-media presence.

The consultant will need to find out whether the client wants a “big picture” strategist who will devise a plan to be implemented internally or if the client also needs ongoing technological assistance.

As an advisor, defining the client’s underlying problem is your central task. A client is likely to focus on symptoms, such as “heartburn, falling profits, cracks in the walls,” writes Salacuse. Drawing on your expertise, ask questions that look beyond symptoms to the deeper problem. Heartburn could be a sign of heart disease, falling profits could reflect the need for a reorganization, and wall cracks could suggest that a building’s foundation needs to be strengthened.

By negotiating the scope of a project, you educate the client about how you can help, what he must contribute, and how he can evaluate your advice. In addition, discussing your role lets you and the client agree on your fees (assuming you’ll be paid), your style of communication (e-mails or phone calls), assignments and deadlines, and your authority (or lack thereof) to act on the client’s behalf.

When you disagree

You may find during the course of an initial negotiation that you and a potential client have very different ideas about what your role should be, writes Salacuse. Suppose that a manager has been assigned to meet regularly with a new hire as part of a firmwide mentoring program. During their initial meeting, the advisor offers to meet with her advisee for lunch once every two weeks to discuss her career. The advisee politely explains that because of her hectic travel schedule, she can meet only once a month, at most.

The advisor might be insulted to be put in this limited role. But as Salacuse notes, advisees have plenty of reasons for restricting the scope of advisors’ involvement, including a natural desire to stay in control of their own lives—a desire that advisors must respect for the relationship to thrive. Keep in mind that as confidence and trust form, the scope of your role may expand.

A new hire who worries about becoming too dependent on her mentor may overcome these fears if the advisor proves to be both helpful and respectful of her boundaries.

Interestingly, research by Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino has found that people tend to be more receptive to advice that they pay for than to advice they get for free. That may explain why a work subordinate or a family member may be less receptive to your pearls of wisdom than a paying client would be.

What if the client seems to need more time than you can give or, conversely, can’t afford to pay you for the amount of work that’s needed?

In this case, you might propose two scopes of work, one broad and one narrow, with two different price tags, suggests Salacuse.

Ultimately, though, if you discover that you and the client are at odds regarding your role, you may need to decline the offer of an advisory relationship altogether. If a contractor believes that a building’s foundation needs to be shored up, but the client is willing to pay for only cosmetic repairs, the contractor might turn down the work for fear of perpetuating a dangerous problem. “Knowing when to say no to a client may be as important as knowing when to say yes,” writes Salacuse.

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