Academic journal article Organization Development Journal

Passing the Test: Mastering the Hidden Agenda in Client Conversations

Academic journal article Organization Development Journal

Passing the Test: Mastering the Hidden Agenda in Client Conversations

Article excerpt


According to Control Mastery Theory, clients enter psychotherapy with an unconscious plan to disprove unhelpful beliefs adopted in childhood. Clients test the psychotherapist in the unconscious hope that the therapist will help to disprove these beliefs. A similar process happens in the consulting relationship. Control Mastery Theory thus offers valuable insights into and approaches to what appear to be puzzling, frustrating, or otherwise unhelpful behaviors by clients.

While organization development consulting is neither legally or ethically psychotherapy, the consulting relationship quite regularly includes elements of that relationship. Control Mastery Theory offers a way of making sense of and successfully intervening in the sometimes challenging and/or frustrating dynamics that arise between consultant and client.

Organization development literature broadly outlines the desired scenario for both the initial conversation and the continuing consulting relationship. Ideally it should include the following elements:

Phases of the Consulting Process1:

Entry & contracting

Data collection

Date feedback

Action planning



Termination or continued consultation

But does it always work this way? Whatever the size and scope of the consultation, from large system change in a multi-national corporation to a brief intervention in a small family business, at various points the consultant has one-on-one conversations with individuals within the client system. Such conversations are inescapable and are crucial to the success of the consultation. In our work with consultants we hear of a number of problematic interchanges. Here are some common examples:

- Clients tell us what they think we want to hear, or what they wish were true, or what reflects well on them or the organization, instead of what is really going on.

- Clients withhold important information such as their place in the organization, problems with the project, lack of commitment from key stakeholders within the organization, and limitations of time and money.

- Clients have difficulty identifying what is or isn't working in the organization and what the current challenges are.

- Clients have unrealistic expectations of what can be accomplished given the resources that they wish to invest.

- Clients blame others for organizational problems but are unaware of or do not acknowledge their own contribution.

- Clients describe organizational difficulties in such extreme terms that they sound unsolvable, and in a way that leaves the consultant feeling unskilled, discouraged and wondering if he or she is adequate to help the client.

In each of the above examples the consultant has stumbled upon a core phenomenon in organizational consulting: the similarities in interpersonal process between organizational consulting and psychotherapy.

In this article we offer Control Mastery Theory, an empirically verified theory of psychotherapy that can be used to understand and enhance the consulting relationship and, most importantly, a theory that can be applied at the behavioral level, avoiding the in-depth aspects of a therapeutic relationship.

Control Mastery Theory in a Nutshell

Much of traditional psychoanalytic therapy originates from Sigmund Freud's drive theory. According to drive theory the unconscious mind harbors primitive impulses that are also strongly defended against. Therapy involves confronting patients with their "resistance" to becoming aware of both their unconscious defenses and the impulses that are being warded off. Within this framework, the therapeutic relationship is essentially adversarial. Patients are driven to maintain their defenses and gratify their unconscious wishes in the therapeutic relationship, while the therapist uses a variety of methods including active questioning, interpretation, and confrontation to help patients come to terms with their unconscious wishes and defenses. …

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