Rigid professionalism; it is all about the relationship stupid

What are the most important skills for professionals to have? Subject knowledge and expertise? Galia BarHava-Monteith shares her NZ doctoral research showing that perfecting relational skills is as important for clients as perfecting professional expertise.

Our question for your reflection: How effectively are we training our professionals in these critical social and emotional skills?


Galia BarHava-Monteith

Galia BarHava-Monteith

Over the last three years, I have been researching for my Ph.D. the experience of people with chronic illnesses who were treated for their conditions by medical professionals who operate from a whole-person approach. Going in, I thought that patients would value the content of the interactions with the medical professionals - understanding the connections between mind and body and how those impact on their health above all else. 

It turns out I was wrong. It was all about the relationships.

As a professional myself, this realisation was quite startling. I had thought that my clients sought me out because of my expertise, training and relevant business experience. The same of course is true of medical professionals. Doctors have spent a considerably long time perfecting their professional expertise, who research and study their field, who are called ‘experts’ for *** sake! The assumption they make is that patients should listen to them and do what they say, because they say so - because they are the experts.

It turns out that this is not how the patient hears or perceives the relationship with their medical professional. My research has led me to think of professional identities as being on a continuum from ‘rigid’ to ‘grounded, yet flexible’. By that I mean that rigid professionals are so bound to their professional identity, they see it as defining the whole of them, and struggle to step outside it, experiment and explore other options with their clients, or even admit that they might not have the answer at their finger tip. Does that sound familiar? I am sure all of those reading this article have had at least one experience with a rigid medical professional. And the experience left you feeling not listened to, and not cared for.

As one of my interviewees told me “just because doctors have letters after their names doesn’t mean we are going to trust them.” Too true. And yet, in my business work life, I too have fallen into the trap of rushing in with the solution to my clients’ issues because I am the expert and that is what I do, that is what they pay me for! 

Or is it?

Yes, clients do pay us for our expertise. However, if we want to effect real change for them, in whatever field it is that we are in, we must concentrate on the relationship first, and always. Building relationships with our clients is not a "nice to have". It is a MUST have. Perfecting our relational skills is as important as perfecting our expertise. We don’t have to spend many hours with our clients to do so either. My research taught me that enduring and positive relationships can be built in a very short amount of time. It is about the intent of the professional going in.

People are incredibly sophisticated in reading one another. It is a human super power. And unfortunately, professionals sometimes forget this as they concentrate on their professional expertise. They forget that they are being measured and assessed by the client, and they might not be aware that the client is assessing the way the professional is going about building the relationship, not just the advice they are receiving. 

Through my research, I came to realise that it is all about our intent going in. If we intend to go in to ‘fix’ things and go out again, the client will feel it and will be a lot less likely to engage. From my experience, they will even actively resist the approach even if you try to prove to them in whichever way it is the right one for them. They may even resent you for being proven right. And they are certainly quite likely to begrudge your bill.

However, if we, as professionals, go in with an intent of getting to know the person and finding out what it is they need from us, they will respond very very quickly. It doesn’t take a huge amount of time. The thing is, the more you invest in building these relationships first, the easier the whole project/case/process will become, the smoother it will be, and the outcome is much more likely to be mutually beneficial for you both. And then, in the end, they are more likely to pay your bill, on time and in full. 


We are grateful to Galia for permission to re-publish her blog from LinkedIn »