Helping people, groups and organisations change and develop can be lonely and stressful. I have felt powerless sometimes. These feelings are common among people who work in organisations, as trainers, consultants or managers. Some years ago, a colleague and I found a way through these difficulties. I have been using it for years and would like to share it with you.
What is coconsulting?
In its simplest form, two people take turns helping each other. For, say, half an hour, one person is the client and works with the other, their consultant. The consultant and client can use any method that the client is willing to try. The consultant will need to listen to the client well to understand the nature of the problem or issue before moving to a method. Often just listening attentively and asking questions is enough.
The client can help by being assertive about what they need during the process. If the consultant’s approach is not working, the best clients will say so; then, you can get back on track. Also, if it is working and the client says, “This is great!” the consultant will deliver more.
The consultant is offering their best professional time and must keep their focus on the client. Paying attention like this is much more demanding and usually more helpful than a simple conversation where the focus moves between the participants.
After the session, the consultant and client talk about what they did that worked well. They may also talk about how it could have been better.
The “rules” are straightforward, but you must follow them if this method is to work.
Keep to your agreement on time; otherwise, one person will feel exploited.
Keep your attention on the client’s concerns, or they will feel let down.
Use a method of helping that is appropriate to the issue and acceptable to the client.
Have an explicit agreement about confidentiality before you start and stick to it.
It is unnecessary to agree to any method before you know what the client wants to explore. Coconsulting differs from cocounselling, where the parties agree to take turns and use the same theory and practice. Cocounselling can be very effective and is an option coconsultants can use if they choose to.
What are the benefits?
To be effective in any role, you need to be able to think clearly and act powerfully. Any effective consultancy process will help the client think more broadly and clearly about a problem or opportunity. Simply explaining something to another person who is listening will often do this. Often the person talking will discover new possibilities and find new energy to act. They will feel more valuable because someone else has bothered to listen.
Sometimes someone who is not in your situation can offer a different viewpoint. I remember someone from another organisation asking me, “Have you talked to Ron about it?” The person in question was a senior manager, and I had made the unconscious, and wrong, decision that I could not talk to him from my “lowly” level.
In the consultant role, coconsulting gives a straightforward and non-threatening way to find out how to help effectively. If you are going to try new things, there is much less risk in working with a peer than with an internal or external client, where you may only have one chance to make a difference.
It also helps you to understand what another person’s position is. Coconsulting can be very useful when people come from different organisations or different roles in the same organisation. It is an excellent way of building bridges.
You can also use a “mini-session”; People then coconsult for (say) five minutes each way. Mini-sessions can be valuable at the beginning of a development event. You might ask people to talk about what they want from the event and what they will do to make it succeed.
It is easier to think out loud when someone else is listening. These questions help people think about what they want and their responsibility for making it happen.
I have found mini-sessions invaluable if a meeting or workshop is getting stuck. Perhaps feelings are running high, and no one is listening very well. If you ask people to go into pairs and have five minutes each way on how they feel and what needs to happen next, they will often come up with an elegant solution to their problem. You have increased the attention people have for each other markedly and produced better thinking.
People take in information and think much better when they have a chance to talk. So you can use mini-sessions halfway through a talk. “Spend a few minutes each way talking about what you have learned so far and what you still want to learn”. Their attention will be much better in the second half. They also work very well if you need questions. “What have you learned? What question would you like to ask?” You will get far more and better questions than just saying, “Any questions?”
Coconsulting across an organisation or a society would increase the amount of understanding because whatever method you use, you have to listen for it to work. It also reduces prejudice; if you have met, understood and helped an “X”, you will never again agree with anyone that “All “X’s” are like that!” An “X” could be a man or woman, white, black, Jewish person, gay, straight, working, middle-class, upper class or someone from the finance department! The latter may be funny and exciting rather than the conventional stereotype.
How to introduce coconsulting?
If you want to set up a coconsulting relationship for yourself, the easiest way is to ask someone from your network of fellow professionals or colleagues if they would like to try an idea out. Explain the simple rules, see the box above, and decide who should go first as the client.
If you go first, choose a real topic but not one that is too deep or scary and a relatively short time. Then tell the consultant what you got from the session and all the things they did well. If they ask for ideas on how to do it better, then offer constructive ideas gently.
If the other person is the client, remember to tell them that they are doing well, they will be doing the best they can and will be anxious. Use the gentlest techniques that will work. It is not good to show off. Afterwards, you can ask what worked and how it could be better, if you want, as before.
Coconsulting is a reciprocal relationship. It is tempting to give your client more of the time than you. Doing so is an unconscious way of showing your superiority or of avoiding being vulnerable. It does not help, especially at the beginning of your coconsulting relationship.
To introduce it to a group, I would usually explain the basic ideas and invite a volunteer from the group to work with me, live, on a current issue for ten minutes or so. The group would observe, and then we would discuss how the client and I worked together, but not the session’s content.
The client usually gets enough out of it, and the process is transparent enough for people to feel confident about having a go for themselves. When they do and have twenty minutes each way with a bit of discussion between sessions, they find that most have a new insight into their issue and have thoroughly enjoyed talking and listening. We might end with listing the things that work as a client and as a consultant.
Most people are astonished at how powerful this experience is.
Acknowledgements and References
I want to thank John Coleman-Smith and Jef Mason, both then of ICI, for introducing me to this idea. Thank you to my current co-consultants Mike Holdstock, June Whetherly and Alan Trangmar, for working with me patiently and helpfully over the years.