From the January 2010 issue of Research Magazine • Subscribe!

The Art of Communicating with Clients

Raphael Lapin offers advice on negotiating to achieve positive results and avoid conflict.

Why butt heads with irksome clients, when instead you can negotiate conflict: much less stressful and far more effective.

In his handy book, Working with Difficult People (DK Publishing-Oct. 2009), Raphael E. Lapin, consultant to Fortune 500 companies and governments worldwide -- including AT&T, Yahoo! and the United States Air Force -- explains how to develop negotiation and conflict-resolution skills to build trust and overcome resistance.

Founder of Lapin Negotiation Strategies in Los Angeles, the communication specialist is certified in Harvard Law School's famed Program on Negotiation, having trained under professor emeritus Roger Fisher, originator of powerful negotiation techniques and co-author of the bestselling Getting To Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In (Penguin-1981).

Lapin, 54, is a Johannesburg, South African-born former rabbi with a masters degree in Talmudic law.

He started his consulting practice in San Jose, Calif., mediating high-profile divorces and labor union disputes, then expanded into advising corporations about negotiation strategies.

Here are excerpts from a recent Research chat with this guru of getting the best out of prickly folks:

You write that people are often difficult because we allow them to be difficult. How so?

They're difficult when a vital interest of theirs is being threatened at that moment. Faced with a difficult person, the first question I ask myself is: What am I doing or not doing that's enabling them to be difficult? I take responsibility.

Why is listening to what clients are saying so important?

A mistake people make is that they talk more than they listen. They get into pitch mode and start pitching what they think would be appropriate: "Let me tell you what's good for you." Really good negotiators and salespeople do very little talking. They do some very good questioning and a lot of listening.

What's "active listening"?

One way to build trust is for the [client] to know that you've heard their needs and understood what they are. That means reflecting back to them what they've said: "Let me make sure I've understood you accurately. Is what you're saying A, B, C and D?" The response needs to be a nice, sharp, crisp "yes." Active listening is essential as a check for understanding.

Why is it vital to paraphrase clients?

To build rapport and trust, it's not a matter of just saying, "Yes, I hear you." I have to demonstrate that I've listened and taken you seriously. Then the [client's] response is: This guy seems to be taking time to actually understand me.

How do you make clients listen to what you're telling them?

As much as 65 percent of what the talker says is missed by the listener because they're busy framing their response. How absurd is that -- thinking up a response to something they're not listening to?

The only way I can make sure you listen to me is to liberate you from thinking about what you're going to say. Active listening makes people feel adequately heard and understood. That makes them less compelled to think about what they want to get in because they've already got it in.

What's the best way to handle a client who angrily blames the advisor for their account's losing value?

This is dealing with emotions. Active listening is the first step to engage when under attack. Don't get defensive. Even if they say, "You caused this because you weren't diligent enough or monitoring carefully," you've got to apply active listening.

A very useful word is "perception" because it acknowledges without agreeing: "If I understand you correctly, your perception is that I was negligent and brought this about." You've got to go through several cycles of active listening while they're quite emotional until you bring their decibel level down.

Why should advisors make sure not to get defensive?

Defensiveness is not productive in any way. The client isn't listening to you: They're too engrossed in their own anger. It allows the situation to deteriorate. You first have to get the emotions down before they start listening. And, of course, grace and professionalism are important at all times.

What about dealing with a client who thinks they know more about investing than the advisor and resists recommendations?

Again, the first thing is not to get defensive because once that happens, it shuts down dialogue rather than fostering it. You want to keep dialogue open, not block it. You need to listen carefully, then ask: "How would this investment meet the goals that you've [previously identified]? What do you think some of the risks might be? Are there ways of mitigating those risks?"

So prompt them to talk more about their inadvisable idea?

Yes, explore it together. Walk alongside them; don't counter and confront them. Pace along with them. Ask them some good questions. This way, you can lead them out of it: "There may be some other options. Let's talk a little about that."

Advisors often use financial jargon that goes over clients' heads and intimidates them. Any thoughts?

One of the important skills is the capability to put oneself in the other party's shoes. Imagine you were the clients. They don't know anything about finances. All they know is that they're nervous about preserving their assets and don't necessarily have confidence in anybody trying to sell them services. Put yourself in their shoes and ask yourself: How would I react to such a person [spouting esoteric terms]?

How do you get clients to open up about their lives, attitudes, dreams for the future?

Asking good questions is a skill in how you frame the questions and the way you ask them. Use the powerful technique of self-disclosure to [induce] clients to talk about things that are uncomfortable for them. It's very powerful. Offer some self-disclosure to make it safe for them to discuss something sensitive. You might say: "This [particular] issue is a constant concern of mine, and I'm wondering whether it would be a concern of yours too."

Should advisors have a list of open-ended questions in front of them?

While learning, it's OK. But it's far better to develop the skill of thinking on your feet. If my purpose is just to get clients to open up and be comfortable talking, the questions might be about their family and history. If it's regarding specific investment experiences, the questioning has to be directed toward that. Not all questions are created equal. [Often] a carefully crafted question opens everything up in a negotiation.

How do you develop the skill of reading between the lines?

First you need to know what you're looking for. This gets into a concept that originated at Harvard: the difference between "positions" and "interests." For example, if two kids are arguing over an orange, each one laying claim to it, the position is "That's my orange." The interest is what is driving the position. You've got to drill down to the interest.

Questions to ask are: "What needs of yours would not be met if you didn't have the orange? How does having it help you?" One child might say, "I'm hungry." The other may say, "I need the orange peel to bake a cake."

So the positions that were originally conflicting translate into interests that no longer conflict: You can give the [fruit] to one child and the peel to the other.

In listening, develop sensitivity by probing deeply.

Why is it important for advisors not to introduce their ideas or recommendations too soon?

We've had many situations in negotiation where the parties will present a proposal too early and it's rejected; but later on, the same proposal is accepted perfectly well.

Nobody likes to have solutions imposed on them no matter how good they are. People like to feel a partnership and ownership in the solution that's being created. Any solution or idea that's put out before a sufficient rapport has been built will be perceived as the other party being self-serving -- no matter what.

How critical is communication through body language?

First of all, the advisor should be aware of their own body language. It will either build or corrode trust. Obviously, it has to match your verbal language; otherwise you'll come across as inconsistent and not trustworthy. You can't fake that -- you have to authentically be concerned. That means listening to the client, leaning in, making eye-contact. You can't say how concerned you are if, when the client is talking, you're checking your e-mail.

Can you elaborate about eye-contact?

When a client is talking to you, eye-contact is very important because it shows that you're completely attentive. When they're speaking and your eyes are shifting all over the place, it's like the politician who's shaking hands and at the same time looking behind your shoulder to see who's next. It's important to give complete, full focus and to maintain eye-contact.

What body language should advisors be aware of in clients?

If they are easily distracted or looking around, they're not engaged. One way of dealing with that is to engage them verbally. Let them talk.

If a client isn't believing what the advisor is saying, they may frown or shake their head. Advisors should address this in a productive, constructive way. Phraseology is very, very important. You might say, "By watching you, my sense is that you have concerns with some of the things I'm saying."

What if an advisor gets the distinct impression that the client doesn't trust them?

I won't say, "My sense is that you're not trusting me." I may say, "My sense is that you have some reservations and concerns. I'd like you to talk a bit more about them."

If you say, "You don't trust me," they'll become suspicious and defensive.

So active listening isn't a good tack here.

Never use active listening to reinforce something negative! That is, if someone says, "Raphael, I think you're an idiot," I'm not going to reply, "OK, if I hear you correctly, you think I'm a fool. Is that right?" But I could say, "My sense is that you feel I fell short of the mark. I'd like to know a bit more about that."

When the market plummets, many advisors disappear and avoid contact with clients. What's a better way?

Our research has found that hospitals that are open about things that have gone wrong have a lower incidence of malpractice suits than those that are not transparent. The same thing applies to [financial services]. An enormous amount of suspicion can be created among clients when things are going south and they can't get hold of the advisor.

Does that mean initiating a phone call to them?

Communication has to be kept open at all times. People think we need good communication when problems are arising. But the converse is true: Problems arise when there isn't good communication. The time to [start] communication is not when things are going wrong but when things are going right.

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