Greek mythology includes some novel solutions, with marvelous lessons. Procrustes might make some of us stop and think about the problems with one-size-fits-all methods. One definition of Procrustean given by Merriam-Webster is "marked by arbitrary often ruthless disregard of individual differences or special circumstances." I don't know anyone who would like to have his method of client service described as Procrustean and yet I think Procrustes lives in some mediators, lawyers, physicians, and other professionals. Have you met Procrustes?
Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes in his The Bed of Procrustes:
[W]e humans, facing limits of knowledge, and things we do not observe, the unseen and the unknown, resolve the tension by squeezing life and the world into crisp commoditized ideas, reductive categories, specific vocabularies, and prepackaged narratives, which, on the occasion, has explosive consequences. Further, we seem unaware of this backward fitting, much like tailors who take great pride in delivering the perfectly fitting suit—but do so by surgically altering the limbs of their customers.
To act as a Procrustean practitioner or professional usually would not be an effective method of client service. Would you want to hire a Procrustean lawyer, mediator, physician, therapist, engineer, minister, or accountant? I have met many but would not want to work with any.
Fortunately there are many methods to counteract being a Procrustean practitioner, including being very aware or certain kinds of mindful. In this post I will begin to introduce a method that will help you to adapt your methods of service to each client. This particular method or lens can accommodate the differences in clients listed below (and many more differences, too). This list will be specific to mediators or lawyers but with slight modification in wording can apply to all professions.
This method helps professionals to assess and adapt to these differences in clients:
- How the client sees the role of an expert (i.e., of mediator or lawyer)
- How the client sees his or her own role in the professional relationship
- The client's need for structure
- How structure will be determined and by whom
- Who the client believes owns the dispute or legal matter
- Who the client believes has the responsibility for resolving the dispute or matter
- Who the client believes has the right to resolve the dispute or matter
- How the client defines resolution or success and who he or she believes determines that definition
- How the client views the pace and timing of the case or matter
- How the client sees, defines, and decides the purpose of the relationship between the client and the professional
If a professional working with a client assumes he or she knows these answers or worse tries to fit the client into a Procrustean bed, many unintended consequences will likely occur, not the least of which is a client poorly served and not respected.
The process I will be discussing in an upcoming presentation with my colleague Dr. Susan K. Wolcott shows professionals how to work with a client as an individual, taking into account critical factors such as the client's
- Comfort with ambiguity
- Comfort with uncertainty
- Need for agency (involvement in making choices and acting on them)
- Degree of self-awareness
- Methods of problem-solving
- Methods of gathering and assimilating information
- Methods and degree of valuing expertise
Although it may seem that using this process would be very complex and time-consuming, it is not. Dr. Wolcott has been refining her process for decades and it dovetails well with methods I have been using for nearly a quarter of a century. I believe it will be of tremendous value because it will not only improve client service but also significantly lessen mismatches between professional and client. (For example, I firmly believe that some, probably many, failed mediations are not the fault of mediation but of a profound mismatch between the parties and the conflict professional.)
Watch here for the schedule of our presentations. We are both very excited to move this process into arenas where it will improve client service and decrease Procrustean behavior of professionals. Clients will benefit, of course, but so will professionals. When one works with a client in a way that truly serves the client, doing so can diminish stress and amplify career satisfaction. Cutting or stretching a client can take lots of energy and decapitating one is extremely costly and dangerous.