Consultants – including myself –love to talk about how emotional intelligence in consulting is a critical skill in our industry. But why is that?
Our Technical Assent team spent some time thinking through this question during one of our regular professional development sessions; the idea we kept coming back to is that emotional intelligence (also referred to as EQ) is critical to a consulting firm skillset because it supports our ability to deliver expertise as a service.
Even if you don’t know what emotional intelligence is, there’s plenty of literature now on the subject and why it’s important in the workplace. It’s popularly defined as “your ability to recognize and understand emotions in yourself and others, and your ability to use this awareness” (Bradberry 2009).
Emotional Intelligence in Consulting: More than Empathy and Communication
What I don’t see a lot of are specific reasons explaining WHY our emotional intelligence is so especially helpful in consulting. We often use words like “communication” and “empathy” to describe the connection, but that’s not terribly precise or helpful. If we understood the linkage better, maybe we could exploit it more effectively, too.
Let’s stop and think about what consulting is really about. As a consultant, it’s not enough to have the answers. What distinguishes a good subject matter expert or analyst from a good consultant (and you certainly can be both) is the ability to effectively provide expertise to help another achieve their goals – it’s expertise “as a service”. And services are fundamentally about supporting customers – their goals, in their operating context, in terms that make sense to them.
Connecting these ideas – provision of knowledge as a service and focus on the customer – I can see a few distinct and specific linkages between emotional intelligence skills and excellent provision of expertise as a service.
- Ability to not only listen, but understand. Effective consulting starts with understanding a client’s goals. However, it’s often hard for folks to understand their own goals well enough to articulate them. It’s harder still to articulate them well enough that another person understands them. Consultants with well developed emotional intelligence can meet their clients halfway on this; emotional intelligence in consulting helps us understand the client’s desired outcome more easily. And when it comes time to diagnose the root cause of a problem, the cycle repeats itself.
- Ability to translate understanding to our recommendations. We’ve all been there at least once: we present a well-reasoned and logical recommendation to a client and the client rejects it. There’s many reasons this can happen; it’s often tempting to say the client just “doesn’t get it”. The truth is that a staff member who leverages good emotional intelligence in consulting firms to really understand their client will generally be able to construct recommendations that support their client’s goals in the client’s context – avoiding these situations altogether.
- Ability to separate personal emotions from recommendations. If you do run into a truly difficult situation with a client, a professional difference of opinion can easily become an argument because we take pride in our work, and pride is an emotion that begets other (not so productive) emotions. There is no way to avoid disagreement 100% of the time, but facilitating outcomes in spite of disagreement requires an effective response. A consultant with well-developed emotional intelligence will be able to control their emotional responses in these situations and use the disagreement as feedback to improve the client’s outcome rather than letting it become a roadblock.
What do you think? Are there other specific conclusions can we draw to explain this concept of emotional intelligence in consulting to non-consultants, students, and new practitioners? I’d love to hear your thoughts.