Why You Need to Challenge Your Clients

Stop staying in the comfort zone, start challenging elderly care decisions

Most service providers believe relationship building is the key to success. But challenging your clients may be even more important. Here’s how to do it effectively:

Early on in my career, whenever I sat down to work with families and their aging parents for the first time, my top priority was connecting with them on a personal level. I followed the age-old maxim, “Begin wherever the client is,” and I proceeded cautiously, ever mindful of the rapport we were establishing. Even if our conversation revealed another, more pressing issue, I would sometimes put my professional insights aside—all so I could maintain focus on the relationship.

I wouldn’t be surprised if you have done the same. After all, most service providers are taught from Day One that our success depends on relationships, and we work hard to cultivate them. To illustrate my point, take a look at this list, and choose the quality you think is most important for a service provider’s success:

  • Diligence (a hardworking implementer)
  • Relationship building (staying engaged, connected)
  • Problem solving (focused on solutions)
  • Challenging (ready to add an expert’s perspective)
  • Independence (a lone wolf who thinks outside the box)

While all of these attributes are important, my guess is you chose relationship building as the most essential. But, what if that’s no longer the case? Could a different approach be even more effective?

Why Challenging is More Important than Relationship Building

Recently, I have become more and more convinced that service providers need to reassess how they manage their client interactions.

Yes, we all want to develop a personal rapport with our clients; however, if someone is struggling with a decision or “stuck” on a particular issue, what may be most important is that you challenge them. So, with your stable relationship as a foundation, go ahead. Challenge them.

Why? Because by offering a fresh perspective, you shake up the status quo, help your clients reframe their problems, and inspire them to consider alternative solutions. Ultimately, challenging leads to better outcomes—and nothing’s better for strengthening client relationships than better results!

The Three Important Characteristics of a Challenger

Since most service providers have been focused on relationship building, your challenging skills may seem a bit rusty at first. That’s okay; you can continue to finetune your challenging technique over time. Just remember that to be an effective challenger, you’ll need to:

  1. Customize. Professional advice is never one-size-fits-all. To challenge effectively, demonstrate how your expertise directly relates to what is important to your clients.
  2. Educate. Challenging a client involves offering a new, professional perspective. You need to help them connect the dots and understand the ramifications of taking, or not taking, a proposed action.
  3. Assert. Creating constructive tension is what leads to better outcomes. However, it can be difficult to move someone out of their comfort zone, and with some clients, you’ll need to proceed carefully to avoid alienating them.

How I Used Challenging to Help A Client

Here’s an example of how I used challenging to help a client find a better solution:

Jake was the only living family for Alice, his aunt, but the two hadn’t had much contact since he moved from California to Texas years ago. When Alice started to show early signs of Alzheimer’s, Jake made the trip to her small home in Santa Monica, and while there, he made his intentions clear: Jake wanted his aunt to move to Texas, so she could stay with him and his family—and he wanted that to happen immediately, over the next few days!

Jake engaged LivHOME to help with the transition, but as soon as I met Alice, it was obvious that she did not want to move. Alice was connected to her community through a local church and senior center. She had many friends and even a caregiver. By contrast, Alice didn’t know her nephew very well and was unsure about moving in with his family.

I realized that if I challenged Jake, I might lose him as a client.

But I also knew that I needed to challenge him, in a way that would inspire him to rethink his initial plan. Here’s what I did:

I customized: “I understand that you care about your aunt, so much so that you are willing to take her into your own home. But since you care about your aunt, you must also see that she does not want to move. For her, moving to Texas would be extremely difficult.”

I educated: “I’ve worked with hundreds of families in similar situations, and I help them understand how they can help their relative in a way that is consistent with the elder’s wishes. I’d like to suggest an alternative plan, one that would balance what your aunt wants with the reassurance you need that her care is being well-managed.”

I asserted: “While wanting your aunt to live closer to you is noble, it’s not what she wants. What if we could set up a plan so that your aunt gets the care she needs, and we provide you with regular updates from a geriatric care manager or Aging Life Care Professional™?”

As you can see, I challenged Jake’s idea of what would best meet his aunt’s needs, while at the same time acknowledging that he wanted to do the right thing and that there may be another solution. That approach led to a win-win solution, in which Alice’s wishes were honored and Jake felt he had made the best possible decision.

If you have been focusing on relationship building, it may be time to take it to the next level and try the challenger role. I know that this role may feel a bit strange to you at first. Stick with it. By challenging effectively through the right combination of customizing, educating and asserting, you’ll help your clients, and your business, be more successful.

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Steven Barlam

Author Steven Barlam

Steven Barlam, MSW, LCSW, CMC is the Chief Professional Officer and Co-Founder of LivHOME. Since 1985, Steve has worked exclusively in the field of geriatrics, working directly with clients and their families, and developing innovative service delivery models. He has served as President of the National Association of Professional Geriatric Care Managers. Steve is a regular lecturer at local universities and national conferences on topics relating to care management, technology, and patient/client care.

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