A Small Intervention with a Big Impact

By Judy Vogel
The first article by Judy Vogel, launches the start of a new series for Practicing OD –
“What if I only had one intervention?”. In this inaugral piece, Judy discusses the value
and impact of simply probing someone on whether they have expressed, shared or asked
another about some feeling, concern, need or assumption they have. This intervention
raises awareness, provides new choices and surfaces, often self-limiting, thinking for the
recipient, opening up conversation about new possibilities and providing support for
risking more complete communications with others. In sharing this intervention, she
reminds us of an important responsibility of OD practitioners to help raise consciousness
and provide choice.

Given the complexity of human systems, it’s important that OD consultants have a
variety of lenses and models through which to look at client needs and to skillfully
intervene, as indicated, at the individual, group or system level – or several of these.

However, if I were to find myself limited, for some diabolical reason, to use only one
lens or model, I’d know in an instant which I’d select. It’s one that, among others, resides
in the skillful “use of self,” which is an essential framework of OD. It’s the one that
arises out of close and skillful listening to what a client says and, often more important,
what a client doesn’t say. It’s one that recognizes that clients make important
assumptions about their situations and that these assumptions shape what is discussable
with colleagues and what is not. These assumptions guide and limit what they do. I am
referring to the small consulting intervention that, at just the right time, asks the client,
“Have you said that to her?” “Have you conveyed that reaction to him?” “What stops you
from expressing that feeling?”

With remarkable reliability, this question opens a new vista for the client. It challenges
her to notice her self-created limitations. It reminds him of additional choices that he
could make. When the client becomes engaged in a supportive conversation about the
possibilities that arise from noticing the unexpressed views, needs and feelings, and then
with fuller awareness chooses to risk more complete communicating with others,
situations that had seemed quite immovable – even hopeless – can be seen in a new light.
With such new perspective, the client often discovers new ways to proceed and designs a
new and previously unimaginable future.

Here are some examples from my consulting and coaching practice.
Jennifer, a middle manager, tells me she frets about what Harris, her supervisor, is
hearing from new internal customers about her effectiveness in team meetings. She fears
these customers see her as too quiet and too unsure of herself to be credible and that they
have been complaining to Harris.

Sam relays to me that he wonders and worries about rumors that his group is going to be
reassigned to another executive, but his current supervisor has said nothing to him.
Roberta expresses concern that Ben, whose group has been recently reassigned to her, is
still giving direction to his former staff and thus undermining her authority and
interfering with the staff’s work.

Sound like typical client concerns? It is normal that our clients, monitor their work
situations for potential trouble, especially during times of change. All three examples
share another feature – none of the three has approached the other person to explore the
concern. Further, when I inquire, “Have you asked that question?” Or, “Have you raised
this concern?” they each say, “No, I have been too scared” or very frequently, they reply,
“Gee, I hadn’t thought to discuss it.”

If then I gently, but firmly, and with genuine curiosity offer to explore this limiting
thinking with them, they very frequently become receptive to the exploration. “It didn’t
occur to me to just say, “I’d like to talk with you about a concern I have.” Often they’re
amazed at their own stuck-ness and readily resolve to move forward. Occasionally, it
takes my inquiring more deeply into their thoughts and feelings for the shift to take place.
However, often just asking the question – “Have you expressed how you feel?” – is
sufficient to open the door.

With this shift in awareness and interest, I help Jennifer to plan the steps she’ll consider
taking with Harris. Sometimes we role play the conversation; sometimes she writes out a
script. Mostly, she feels freed to take action just by the very experience of my asking,
“What stops you from talking with Harris.” She gulps and wonders aloud about how
she’d been unaware of this obvious option.

A similar dynamic of unaware self-censoring may take place when the situation is quite
positive. Here’s an example:

Nancy describes her appreciation of her supervisor Meg, who recently took a strong and
potentially risky stand with an executive regarding a customer need. Nancy says she feels
respectful of Meg’s courage and integrity.

When I inquire if she’s told Meg of her appreciation, Nancy sheepishly acknowledges
that she hasn’t, though she can’t think of a reason why not – just that it hadn’t occurred to
her. She readily commits to telling Meg at their next meeting. Nancy “gets it” with only a
simple question from me.

Sometimes a client will decide that raising the issue or offering the feedback is not the
wise choice at this time; and that’s fine with me because it is made with consciousness. I
do not believe that every issue should be aired, and I do believe that the choice about
whether to act resides with the client, not with me. However, I also believe that it is part
of my job to help raise the unexamined choices so that clients are more able to determine
what is in their best interest. With their awareness comes greater clarity and usually
greater calm, two attributes that assist people to be more creative and effective. I believe
that I fulfill an important consulting objective when I engage with clients in this simple
but powerful way.

Judy Vogel, MLA is a partner in Vogel/Glaser & Associates, Inc. in Columbia, MD. She
is a long-time organization development consultant and executive coach, a member of the
Editorial Review Board of the OD Practitioner, a member of NTL Institute and on its
Board of Directors. She can be reached at Judy@Vogelglaser.com