I grew up Minnesota Nice… born in a mid-sized, Midwestern town, attended a mid-sized, Midwestern undergraduate school and spent nearly 10 years in the public sector as my first post-college experience. In many ways, following the rules, being “right,” and making sure others knew you thought they were right was far more highly valued — and considered far more appropriate— than offering a different perspective.

When I moved into the business world, things no longer seemed black or white. In my work as an advisor/consultant/coach and facilitator, Minnesota Nice doesn’t necessarily add much value. Why would a client need me, if all I offered was affirmation of what they were already doing?

Over the years, I’ve found that when I follow my instincts, offer alternate ways of seeing things, especially through stories, and directly push back on the one right way, clients are usually far better served. To get them there, I’ve developed and continue to refine three simple steps.

Be the Teacher, not the Mother. With a degree in education, and a passion for adult learning, I’ve seen how many different ways adults learn. When I approach things with questions (vs. “I know the answer”), clients can see their current experiences from multiple perspectives. They say thanks often enough that I’m convinced they see my conversation and behavior less as a push back against their standard approach and more as a door opener to change.

Model the Tailor, not the Tinker. Remember the old nursery rhyme Tinker Tailor? The tinker was an unskilled worker, who mended household pots and pans, and, was considered clumsy. When we challenge others, we need to be as skilled as the best tailor, customizing our approach to the specific needs of that person. We need to understand the client— their expectations, preferences and desired outcomes. And, with that base of understanding, we need to offer options that are grounded in their values and present them with an emphasis on why, not what.

Face the Fear— and Do It Anyhow. Options really open up once we realize that it’s natural to worry when it comes to client relationships. Whenever we prepare to push back, at least one of these questions inevitably comes up—

  • Will they think I’m stupid?
  • What if I lose the business?
  • What if I’m wrong?

I’ve learned these queries are all masks for resistance and, because of that, the best answer is to lean in to them, accept that those outcomes could be possible, and, push yourself to do what is best for the client. When serving clients, if my gut says— what they’re suggesting won’t work— I need to honor that, use questions wisely, and help the client make connections between the problems they’ve identified and the value of other alternatives.

Challenging is not the opposite of nice. Pushing back is not the opposite of being thoughtful. Offering options is not the opposite of agreeing. None of these behaviors oppose strong relationships. To the contrary, each of them helps stretch the relationship, add value and demonstrate respect. That matters.