Walking the tightrope without a net. That’s what it feels like for so many of us solo practitioners, solopreneurs and small business owners. There is just so much we have to do before we can settle down to getting the job done. We need to pitch, present, propose, negotiate. Eventually, when we are successful at these steps, we get to do what we actually love. “The thing itself” is what interests us. Our vision of it is strong enough push us out on that tightrope every time.
But we will never make that vision a reality if we can’t communicate.
As you doubtless already know, the first step is to listen to what prospective clients want. Completely. Give them your undivided attention. But don’t forget the next step: tell them what you understood them to say. This eliminates initial misunderstandings that could set you off on the wrong path. And from a relationship-building standpoint, this step is crucial. People need to be heard. If they are considering hiring you for your expertise, they want to know that you will listen to what they are telling you. And to be sure that what you heard is actually what they said.
So you have heard what they want. Good. But what happens when your expertise tells you that what they want isn’t really what they need? This can be tricky, but again, you have to articulate what it is they have told you, then share how your solution will solve the problem. It may be a slightly different way than they had expected, but if you approach it as a joint effort, rather than telegraphing “I am the expert so I know better,” you will get down to work much sooner. This is something like the “pivot” tactic used in political communication. And this technique is known in improv world as “yes . . . and” (as opposed to “no . . . but,” a counter-productive blocking tactic). Even if you absolutely know from the start that what the clients want will never solve their problem, you need to hear them out. Your willingness (or lack thereof) to engage on this level will tell them a lot about how you will communicate going forward.
In our wildest dreams we will be as successful as (fill in the name of the top practitioner in your field). When we have that stellar reputation for excellence we will be able to ask for–and often get–free rein when we work. But until then we are in the position of asking our clients to trust us, to have faith that ultimately we will give them what they really need. We need to work to establish a bond of trust. And hold onto it. It is never a given. It is a gift, an important connection that we need to reinforce with every interaction. It is our safety net. So never, ever stop listening!