One of the most important lessons I learned about effective consulting came to me more than 25 years ago when my wife convinced me to attend an improv class with her. That’s where I learned about a concept called “enter the danger.”
The basic principle, in the context of improvisational theater, goes like this. When actors are talking to one another, they must overcome their natural tendency to avoid uncomfortable moments, and instead seek out the weirdest, most difficult situations. The best, most fruitful improvisational theater happens when people on stage walk right into the middle of a potentially explosive topic and build upon it.
In the context of consulting, entering the danger is about fearlessly wading into awkward issues when every fiber of your being wants to change the subject or let the moment pass. Over the course of my twenty years as a consultant at The Table Group, I can say with confidence that clients have not only benefitted from our willingness to enter the danger with them, but they’ve made it clear to us that it is one of the biggest reasons they want to keep working with us over the long-term.
Here are a few examples of what it looks like to enter the danger with a client, both of which were demonstrated by one of my colleagues and co-founders. I’ll call her Amy, because that’s her name.
During an off-site, Amy was facilitating a strategy discussion with a CEO and his team. At one point, the CEO launched into a sudden and disproportionately intense tirade at his direct reports. When it was over, the room sat in awkward silence for a few long seconds. Finally, someone brought up a new subject and the conversation moved along. It was then that Amy stopped them and said, “Hey, don’t you think we should talk about what just happened?”
After a few more moments of awkward silence, one of the team members reluctantly admitted, “I really hate it when he does that. It feels condescending.” Slowly, a few others agreed. That was probably the peak of awkwardness, a sign that something really good—or bad—was about to happen.
Well, the CEO seemed genuinely embarrassed, and even a little surprised by the reaction of his team. After some discussion, it was clear that he didn’t understand how his behavior had been impacting the team. He went on to explain why he acted the way he did, citing some difficult experiences from his youth, and describing how those had probably led him to believe that his emotional reactions were acceptable for leaders. The tension in the room dissipated immediately as he gave the team permission to call him out when he behaved that way in the future.
Let me make it clear that this was not a unique incident. Moments like this take place frequently when consultants enter the danger with clients, and almost always with similarly positive outcomes. Is it painful? Yes. Always. Is it easy? No. Even now, after years of practicing it, I am still tempted to avoid the danger. And time after time after time, it is precisely the moment when I am able to add the most value to our clients.
Here’s another story about Amy entering the danger with a client. She and I were having lunch with the CEO of a start-up company. He seemed a little depressed as he was telling us about the many challenges he was facing. Amy stopped him and kindly, gently asked him, “Do you like your job, being the CEO?” I was a little stunned by the question, as was the client. He turned to her and replied, “You know, I don’t. I didn’t really want this job, and I’m not sure why I’m doing it.” To make a long story shorter, he transitioned out of the role, finding someone else more passionate about the position, and went to another company. When he arrived there, he called us to work with him, citing our willingness to raise difficult issues as one of the qualities he appreciated about our firm.
The key to finding the courage to enter the danger is embracing this concept: a consultant’s first priority is to help a client, not to keep their business. Every time you enter the danger, you are running the risk that they will say, “Hey, you shouldn’t go there. I think we need to find a new consultant.” Ironically, based on my experience, nine out of ten times they’re going to say, “Hey, no one else has ever gone there with us like that. We need to keep you around.” That is the surprising and counter-cultural impact of entering the danger.