Calling Their Baby “Ugly”

Sooner or later in your consulting career, you will find yourself in the somewhat awkward position of having to listen to a client proudly describe what you are sure is the worst conceived performance intervention you have ever heard. Imagine, it has taken you months to get them this excited about anything. You listen in horror as they lay out a plan of action that goes directly against everything you have been trying to teach them. Your carefully selected mountain of articles, books, periodicals, and data seems to have had no impact. It is as if they have not read any of it at all. 

Now, unless you are ethically-challenged, you feel the overwhelming need to either burst out laughing, have a good cry, or scream at them that their idea – their baby – is UGLY!

This is why and where you earn the “big bucks.” How you respond can make or break your reputation and your relationship with the client, as well as impact the likelihood that the issue at hand can be resolved successfully. It is probably the biggest challenge you will ever face as a consultant, because you have as much at stake as the client.

What do you do?
The first thing you need is a plan. It is important that you have thought through how you will respond before actually experiencing this situation. This is crucial since many times the “ugly baby” is shown to you at chance meetings, without advance warning, or at the worst possible time. Clients just seem to have a knack for knowing when you have your physical, emotional, and/or mental guard down. Having a plan in advance lessens the likelihood that you will blurt out a “gut” reaction and thereby scuttle months of work.

Be honest, be tactful, and then:

  • Celebrate the client’s effort.
  • Clarify the content of the “ugly baby.”
  • Construct a context for your feedback.
  • Communicate your concerns constructively.
  • Commit to collaborate on solutions.

Celebrate the Client’s Effort
This is especially important. The client has made an effort and it is important to recognize their attempt to analyze their problem, develop a solution, and to take responsibility for their own issues of concern. Here you are not only interested in the content of their idea or plan, but also in the process they used to generate it. Both may need to be addressed in your feedback.

Clarify the Content of the “Ugly Baby”
A really effective way to give yourself some time to think on your feet and ensure that what you heard was, in fact, what the client meant, is to ask for clarification. Sometimes, just the process of repeating an idea or steps in a plan verbally triggers one’s own evaluation and feedback processes to kick in. Gaps in logic, data, or organization many times become self-evident.

As a facilitator, I’ve used this tool often and have even named it “The Idiot Technique” (I’m really good at it!). I simply ask the client or group to repeat back to me what they meant to ensure I captured (in my head or on a flipchart) what they really intended. This step of clarifying usually yields important new nuances of meaning that I failed to capture initially. Listen for emotion, “shoulda’s/oughta’s” and for emotional/historical baggage. All can be tacit drivers of actions not always in everyone’s best interest. They also are generally concealed, subconscious, or fall into the “hidden agenda” category.

Construct a Context for Your Feedback
This is probably the area that gets most of us into trouble. We assume certain roles (listener, advisor, counselor, “parent,” disciplinarian, etc.) that the client may or may not intend for us to take. To minimize the danger of this, ask the client what role they want you to assume. Is this idea a “straw man” and the client wants you to play devil’s advocate, or is it a hard, personal decision that they want you to just listen to as they talk it through? Knowing the difference can mean keeping or losing a client. Setting a context for your feedback should include declaring the role you intend to speak from. Framing your feedback in a psychologically, politically, and culturally safe way goes a long way to generating the willingness to listen among all concerned.

Communicate Your Concerns Constructively
Even if you disagree with everything the client has said/decided, it is important that your feedback be constructive. It should “build up” the client, your relationship, the plan or idea, and strengthen the foundation upon which you and the client will develop a better product. Another helpful technique is to provide the client with three “Plus” (positive) things about their idea and three “Delta” items (areas where their idea can be improved). The idea is that your feedback should be balanced, specific, in context, and aligned with the client’s need – not necessarily their expectation, their want, or what someone else has suggested. Your feedback should make their idea/plan better.

Commit to Collaborate
One of the most helpful things we can do as consultants is to let our clients know they are not alone. Two heads are better than one. The old saying, “They don’t care how much you know till they know how much you care,” applies here. Letting the client know you are committed to helping them achieve their goals is often the best preparation for getting a client to listen. I often remind clients that they first need to get something down on paper and then work to get it right. Treat the idea as simply words on paper – words that can be changed, improved upon, and that are separate from you (the consultant) and them (the clients).

A Thought to Grow On
In today’s demanding world of work, we require good ideas, engaged individuals and teams, and work environments that support quality thinking more than ever. Ideas are fragile things. They must be nourished and not tossed around carelessly. They need space to grow and develop.

Remember, even if it is ugly, it is still their “baby.”

Jerry is a 25-year veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard and is a Certified Performance Technologist, Six Sigma Master Black Belt, and Certified Lean Specialist. He currently works as a Master Black Belt/Mentor for Kaiser Permanente coaching improvement teams, medical center staffs. He also serves as a faculty member for Kaiser’s state-of-the-art Performance Institute.

“Da Lif’nei Mi Attah Omed” – “Know Before Whom You Stand”

Contact him at

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