Finding Tragic Flaws (Issue 835)

In which we are encouraged to look for unproductive patterns in our clients’ decisions lest they come back to cripple them later.

As I rose from my office chair and took a first step, a muscle in my left calf twinged. Felt like someone had plunged a needle into my calf.

Funny… I remember exactly where I was – the first injury to that muscle. My son was playing in a soccer tournament. Feeling a bit frisky, I went off for a walk and jog between his games. On the last leg of the jog, headed across a field toward the main buildings, the muscle began to stiffen a little. I stopped to stretch it a bit, then kept jogging, thinking that the continued use would work out the kink. Every time I pushed off with my left foot, I could feel the twinge a bit until….the muscle suddenly locked up and I collapsed on my back in the grass, wondering who’d stabbed my calf.

I never sought a trainer or physical therapist for the injury either then or in the intervening twelve years. I just let  it ride. As a result, from time to time, that same muscle fires up during a walk or a run and I have to stop exercising until it heals..

Unfortunately, I  can tell you similar stories about my right knee, both shoulders, and my right hip.   While I’ve been active,  I’ve had a pattern of not tending to injuries and now those grumpy injuries reduce my range of physical activity.

The same can be true for our clients (whether they be banking clients or law firm clients or whatever).  While they become more capable over time, they may also develop patterns of decisions that hinder their progress or cause misfortune. In literature, this is called the “tragic flaw.”

The flaw may be endearing, it may be understandable, it may be worthy of respect, and it still leads outcomes far short of what could have been achieved.  For example:  A business owner who ‘holds on to people’ too long. Or is too trusting. Or not trusting enough. Or too afraid to raise prices to reflect the value of their offerings. Or not willing to confront employees in tough conversations about performance.

There’s a pattern of repeating the mistake or running around the problem.

We (sales people or services providers) can be helpful if we take care of our clients’ or patients’ “current problems” or complaints, like  “I am running out of cash” or “We fell short of our revenue projections.” We can ask questions – “where does it hurt?” – and recommend strategies for addressing the pain.

We can be more helpful if we also look for repeating, unproductive patterns by expanding our discussions to explore the past, asking questions like, “Has anything like this (e.g. injuring your leg or running out of cash) happened before?”  If the client’s answer is, “yes,” we can then ask follow-up questions to look for the deeper pattern which, if we can help the client change it, will help them move forward more effectively.

[The follow up questions could include queries like: “What were the circumstances, when it happened before?  How did you see your options at that point? Were there other options you could have considered? How did you decide what to do?  What did you decide to do? What outcomes then followed?  What was your thought about the outcomes? What stopped you from addressing this at the time?

And, then, “Was there another time that this happened?”]




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