We often joke that as PR professionals we moonlight as therapists, helping clients navigate all that comes up when we put ourselves on the line for our jobs and our dreams. In the fervor to harness opportunities, secure results and by extension, our contract, we can often miss out on a key element of the client relationship; mainly that our role as agency partner or publicist isn’t simply transactional (you give us X, we secure Y), but relational. Your client has her own internal landscape to navigate, her own fears and pressures, beliefs and triggers (most of which have absolutely nothing to do with you!) that directly influence the quality of your relationship, and in turn the amount of trust she gives your suggestions and opinions.
If your client has had a negative experience with a PR firm in the past, for example, she might use a communication style that feels aggressive and argumentative (because she is trying to make sure you know what you are doing). He might have 7,000 questions about even the smallest of tasks (because he was disappointed in the lack of attention to his account in the past) or the founder may seem unable to prioritize PR opportunities (because she has a fear of success). None of these communication challenges are because of you, but they are worthy of your awareness and being mindful of both your communication style as well as the story you are telling yourself about what is going on. As you deepen the quality of your client relationships, reinforce your reputation, credibility and expertise, it’s critical to approach conversations with open ears and mind.
This month in the Coterie we’ve been exploring the concept of Active Listening. Essentially, this is learning how to listen truly, openly and with attention, rather than listening in order to respond- to just offer up a solution without a true understanding of what is being said and what is meant by what is being said.
In the above examples, if we come to business relationships with rigid expectations, imposter syndrome running the show, or a need to be right above all else, our experience will reflect that, and the relationship will dip into the negative. However, when we understand our motivations and tendencies we can show up for difficult clients differently. We are able to release the impulse to take things personally. As we withhold judgment, put our own reactions to the side and instead a curious mind – we can get to what is going on underneath the frustrating behavior. From that place, we can answer questions and respond to requests without getting frustrated. From that place it becomes possible to look for creative solutions, have an honest conversation, and trouble-shoot, without feeling the need to apologize, take responsibility unnecessarily or weaken a boundary. From that place of active, empathic listening, we can end up with the ideal outcome – a strengthened bond and greater sense of trust.
If we come to client relationships with our own rigid expectations, our own imposter syndrome, or need to be right, our experience with that client will be negative.
If through those conversations we find out we are doing something that rubs the client the wrong way – we can modify that approach to one that better suits – or we can explore if this client simply isn’t a fit (the biggest sign here is that there is something going on that makes it impossible for us be successful at delivering the outcome we have been hired to secure).
It is certainly not our job to fix or be a stand-in therapist for our clients. However, the more we can look at our clients – even those far more experienced or business savvy than we are – as human beings who come to us with an entire ecosystem of past and current experience, struggle and growth – the more we set ourselves up to be true strategic advisors and trustworthy experts and colleagues.
The next time you find yourself frustrated by how a client is keeping you from that monster to-do list or requires what feels like monumental hand-holding, or just simply isn’t acting the way you would like them to act, take a minute, turn on your Active Listening, or Empathic Listening capabilities and see if you can’t put your interpersonal skills into play to shift the outcome.
When we show up to conversations differently, we shift the very nature of the exchange and can create a different experience that feels better to both parties.