The Tao of Advice

This article was originally published in Alexis Martin Neely’s Law Business Revolution Dispatch – Volume 1 – Issue 8.  The other articles are great! If you’re a lawyer who wants to make a difference, you should subscribe.  There are great marketing articles in here for non-lawyers too…

The Tao of Advice

© 2009 Kevin E. Houchin, Esq.

You are an expert at something. Everyone is an expert at something. Everyone. No exceptions. One of the secrets to success is bringing your area of expertise into resonance with your professional career. As lawyers we’re expected to be the experts. Handing out advice is what we do and I’m sure the content of your advice is top notch, but does your delivery build relationships with current clients and attracts more clients, or does your style push clients away?

It’s time to give conscious attention to the way you give advice. Giving advice is a position of incredible power and responsibility. Lance Secretan in his book Inspire! What Great Leaders Do (Wiley, 2004) says that every communication between humans is an opportunity to inspire. Are you using your opportunities to give advice as opportunities to inspire your clients to reach more of their potential? Here are three themes to improve your advice-giving style so that what you communicate will actually inspire your client to take action:

1. Simplify

2. Patience

3. Compassion

Simplify:

Our job is not to complicate, but to simplify. I used to have an office mate that enjoyed complexity. He enjoyed it so much that he could take a simple client matter and turn it into a complex problem effortlessly. Maybe he thought it helped his billings. Maybe he thought it made him look smart. Maybe he thought he was helping his client understand all the potential issues in a situation. All I know for sure is that it annoyed me to no end and I could tell from the body language of his clients that the same was true for them. Giving advice is about being helpful, not necessarily about being smart or even being “right.”

The Tao Te Ching says:

Governing a large country

Is like frying a small fish.

You spoil it with too much poking.

It’s the same with giving advice. Make your advice as simple as possible.

Patience:

This is the hardest for me. Many lawyers jump to the solution before listening to the entire problem. I become impatient, fidgety. I’m sure you’ve felt the same way. And, if you’re still billing by the hour, it’s easy to rationalize interrupting the client’s narrative in the name of saving the client money. How helpful is that? Not very.

I’ve always liked putting “Attorney and Counselor at Law” on my business cards. It has such a classic old-world craftsmanship feeling. People sometimes ask me what’s the difference between “Attorney” and “Counselor.” I have two answers. First, that as a counselor, I’m in listening mode and as an attorney I’m in talking mode. Second, that you want to hire me as a counselor so that you don’t need me as an attorney. I’ve come to appreciate the counselor role as more valuable and personally rewarding. One of my favorite books, The Trusted Advisor by Maister, Green, and Galford says “more value is added through problem definition than through problem answer.” I believe them.

To enjoy the role of counselor I have to remain patient. The difficulty in remaining patient is not the responsibility of the client; it’s the responsibility of the lawyer. I’ve found it much easier to remain patient if I ask my client to “tell me a story” because then I can find the patience to just listen and give them 100% attention. Sometimes just having someone listen is all a client really needs. If you’re patient, they usually find the solution themselves, and you still end up getting credit for helping solve the problem.

The Tao Te Ching asks:

Do you have the patience to wait

till your mud settles and the water is clear?

Can you remain unmoving

till the right action arises by itself.

Taking some extra time is worth the effort.

Compassion

How many clients have come to you feeling shame? Shame that they haven’t taken care of an issue sooner. Shame that they made a mistake. Shame is a powerful feeling and we have the opportunity to remove that shame through compassion. Most of us are good at providing compassion, but let’s add some nuance.

Again, I learned something from my office mate. He was in his 60s and had a tendency to talk down to clients, most of whom were young enough to be his children or his grandchildren. He gave off a paternalistic vibe. That “father” energy may have made some people feel safe, which is good, but I witnessed it pushing more people away. NOBODY likes admitting a mistake to their parents, and not many people enjoy asking their parents for help. What kind of energy are you putting out?

I’ve worked with several professional coaches and the question of why I attract the type of clients I serve has been a recurring topic. The answer finally dawned on me the other day. My coach suggested that many clients might be looking for a “father” archetype in their lives. The “Ah! HA! Moment” happened when I pushed back saying that most of my clients are roughly my own age, so I couldn’t be seen as their father. The energy I bring to the relationship is that of a compassionate brother.

Are you a compassionate brother or sister to your clients? Do you give your clients loving encouragement when they’re struggling with a problem? Do you celebrate your clients’ wins like they were your own? Do you give them a bit of good-natured ribbing when they knew the answer all along? Do you have their back if someone threatens their security?

The Tao Te Ching reminds us:

The Tao nourishes by not forcing.

By not dominating, the Master leads.

Leave those parental instincts at the door and treat your clients as your brothers and sisters.

Give your advice with simplicity, patience, and compassion and you will feel greater joy in your work, make a lasting difference in the lives of your clients, and attract the types of clients that you are meant to serve.

Kevin E. Houchin is an author and Creative Business Lawyer™ helping people reach their potential through creative business. He can be contacted through his website at www.HouchinLaw.com or @kevinhouchin on Twitter.






5 Responses to “The Tao of Advice”

  1. Great advice – My grandfather was an attorney and although he did not quite live ong enough to see me graduate and join the bar, he did share with me some of the advice I read above -specifically, that if you are a good listener, many clients will answer their own questions and solve their own problems. I also have known attorneys who delighted so much in the complexity of the question (or their ability to make it seem complex) that they would actually start to giggle with delight as they regaled the client with the horrific consequences that could follow from their current course of action. It was uncomfortable to watch. I am sure it was even more so to be the recipient of the “advice.”

    Glad I found your blog!

  2. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Dan Ballard, Brian Strahle. Brian Strahle said: Nice article on how to be a Counselor vs. attorney, accountant or consultant; see http://bit.ly/oBVoC [...]

  3. Phil Montero says:

    Excellent post Kevin!

    I love the way you weave the TAO into your interpretation of the 3 themes of giving advice. I, like you, often found myself not practicing enough patience and was quick to try and solve a problem. This was true not only with clients but also some times with my wife.

    I have since made a conscious effort to be more present and really “listen” and what a difference it makes.

    I help a lot of virtual team leaders and they could all benefit from your advice. Thanks for sharing!

    Phil

  4. Thanks for the kind words Phil. I appreciate the encouragement. Maybe one day I’ll get around to writing an entire commentary on the Tao like Wayne Dyer did. :-)

  5. Loi Laing says:

    Great article! I too love how you weave the Tao throughout.

    The same approach works when counseling nutrition clients. Most people already know what they need to do to make themselves better, they need someone who cares enough to be patient and listen while they eventually sort it out on their own.

    Wisdom in inherent, as counselors I think we empower people to find the answers that already lie within.

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