How do you stand with your client? No, I don’t mean how good is your working relationship—although that’s a good question too. I mean, have you given any thought to how you choose to provide advice?
Think of a stance as a physical act. A stage actor takes a certain pose to convey how he wants to be perceived by the audience. In the case of an human resources or other internal consultant, our stance models are how we want to be perceived by our client—how we are going to engage with them. There are four basic stances: direct, indirect, neutral and side-by-side.
A direct stance is the approach we take when we are dealing with an individual or group head-on. Think of it as a face-to-face, eyeball-to-eyeball, frank and honest conversation. We would use phrases such as, "I’d like to talk with you about …," "When you do that I feel …," "What would be wrong with us trying to …?" The voice is active not passive, the thought is definite not tentative. The advantage is that we are up-front and to the point—hence the name. The disadvantage is that some people feel that this stance is confrontational—and they’re right. The direct stance surfaces conflict and puts truth on the table where it can be dealt with. Using it enables the parties to confront difficult issues head on.
An indirect stance, on the other hand, is more subtle. Like Judo, meaning "the gentle way," this stance goes with the flow. It approaches issues indirectly by means of stories, parables, jokes, anecdotes and metaphors. In physical terms, the body positioning is informal, casual. If for using a direct stance you are on the opposite side of the table or desk for using an indirect stance you sit angled slightly to the side—which is more disarming. You would say things like, "You know, that reminds me of the time …," "It seems to me that this proposal is similar to …" This stance can also be used to engage in a little reverse psychology: "The more I think about it, the more I wonder if this is right time to do …" The advantage of the indirect approach is that it helps get around some of the tension or opposition that we might face with the direct approach. Wayne Fagan, Director of the Centre for Conciliation and Arbitration at St. Mary's University School of Law, once told my grad school class, "It’s amazing how much you can get done if you don’t care who gets the credit." The indirect stance is great for those times when you are working in situations like that. On the other hand, if not done with skill, integrity and respect, this stance can appear manipulative and cynical.
A neutral stance is one that presents alternatives. In physical terms, if we were in an office, we might take a chair to the side of the desk. We’d sit at right angles to the other party. We’d say things like, "We seem to have at least two options …," "Given the choice of X or Y, what do you think we should do?" or "What are your preferences?" It has the advantage of involving other people in the decision process and obtaining their buy-in. On the other hand, it takes longer, and we may lose some control over the dialogue or agenda. We also may appear not to have an opinion, which can be confusing or frustrating to others.
The final stance is known as the side-by-side stance. I once saw Allan Slobodnik, the principal of Options for Change, demonstrate this stance’s power and use during a consulting session. Trying to bring someone on-side, he got up out of his chair, moved around the table, sat down next to the other party and pointed into the distance as he described a vision of some future state. It was only natural for the other person to start looking into the distance with him and join in the imagining. Soon he was pointing too. Working side-by-side signals that we’re on the same team. We might say things like, "I’m with you on this …," "I see what you see and I’m concerned about …," and "I was thinking about our plans last night and I’m interested in your views on how we’ll handle …" The advantage is that our counterpart will see us as really committed to a joint effort. The potential disadvantage, especially if we get caught up in the emotion or euphoria of the moment, is that we have become fully engaged and have made a commitment. Having done so, we have to deliver, or we lose trust as well as the ground we’ve gained.