Stage 1.6   Managing Initial Encounters


A concern may be felt by just one member of a system and still be a legitimate basis foA relationship builds on the first encounter. What happens in the initial contacts between you and the client, how he or she sees you and how he or she feels about you initially will determine whether or not you will be able to proceed into any other stage of problem-solving. In a sense you are a package which the client is going to buy. Most clients want to look the package over and read the label first. The first contacts are used by the client and by you to size up each other and take a quick first reading. Therefore, you must plan and prepare for these encounters with special care. Four considerations are paramount:

  • friendliness,  
  • familiarity,
  • rewardingness, and
  • responsiveness.


 

Friendliness  

A change agent is an intruder, and as for any intruder the client must ask: "Does this person mean us well or ill?" The question may seem absurd to the change agent; after all, you know you're a nice person. To the client, however, there is nothing obvious about this unless he or she starts with a high trust for strangers. On the other hand, initial criteria of friendliness are usually not hard to meet: a smile, a firm handshake, a straight look in the eye, a warm greeting, making a firm mental note of the name of the person we are greeting and using the first name whenever we can. It also helps to make some positive and sincere comment of recognition such as some special attribute or accomplishment of the school, the place, or preferably the person himself. Most of this probably falls in the category of etiquette, but it is not a trivial in the first encounter.

 

Familiarity

As a person who has deliberately chosen to make himself or herself an agent, you are different, Yet effective change agents are usually similar to their clients in most respects or are seen so by the client. Therefore, a change agent should try to be a familiar object to the client in ways that are not important to his/her mission. In most cases this means at least in dress, outward appearance, speech, and bearing.

It also may help to identify some common interests, which are far removed from any change project, such as sports, entertainments, or politics, that is, if you are both likely to be on the same side of an issue. Jokes or humorous comments, which are likely to be shared, are especially effective in draining out some of the tension that will inevitably be in the situation. In any case, small talk, even about the weather, helps to make you a familiar object in initial encounters.

 

Rewardingness

The change agent should find the earliest opportunity to do something for the client that will be perceived as helpful or useful. The point of such an act is not the help itself, but the idea that is planted that "this person can be helpful." Usually this token reward can be merely in the form of a useful piece of knowledge relevant to a problem that the client is concerned about. It might be a book or a pamphlet or perhaps a useful lead to a person or a technique, which the client had not thought of.


Responsiveness

The change agent should always be a good listener, but this is especially true at the beginning of a relationship. Most importantly, you should show that you are a good listener by nodding if you understand, by asking for clarifications when you don't, and by indicating verbally and non-verbally that you are interested and care about what the client is saying, share his feeling, and want to be helpful in whatever way you can. One specific way in which the change agent can indicate responsiveness without commitment to solutions is by repeating back to the client what the agent thinks the client has said but in different words. This gives the client a chance to hear his or her own thoughts from another and to correct misunderstandings. In any case, it shows the client that the change agent is at least trying to listen.

This echoing type of response communication is a special skill that should be practiced and learned by all change agents until it comes naturally. It is especially worth the effort where:

  • client is about to make a major commitment of time, money, people, or effort;
  • you need to get across a rather complicated set of ideas;
  • you suspect that the client is having a hard time hearing your message; 
  • there appears to be a conflict between you and the client over a key issue.


These first steps in relating to a client might fit in the category of "good politics" or "good public relations." They should not be taken as the substance of change agentry but only as preliminary and sometimes nonessential preliminary niceties. As soon as possible you should start moving toward a serious dialogue on problems. This dialogue might be seen as a series of cycles of problem-solving starting with something small and manageable which the client sees as manifestly urgent. Successful problem-solving at this micro level cements the relationship and builds the trust necessary to move to issues that are more serious, systemic, and controversial.