May newsletter – Working with Professionals

This newsletter was triggered by my experiences with gym trainers, movers, organizers, social service and medical professionals. My purpose is not to slam anyone but to encourage understanding that in most transactions with professionals, you actually are or should be in charge and the ultimate decision-maker. To really be in charge, you must be clear on roles, responsibilities, and motivations, and be willing to assert yourself as the decision-maker.
Although doing things for ourselves is very satisfying, there are many areas where bumbling around on our own will cause more wasted time, effort, and money than hiring someone who knows what they are doing and letting them do it. Although healing emotional issues on our own is possible, we may suffer less pain (or inflict less pain on others) by having a skilled person help us find and become free of our blinders and filters. Experts can train us in their skills more quickly and thoroughly than we can learn them on our own. Treating our own medical issues is less likely to be successful than letting a doctor take care of us (up to a point). When an issue has stumped us for a long time and we are making little, no, or no recent progress, then an outside expert might help us move forward.

Your needs can rarely be as well understood by any professional as they are by you. Skilled professionals can illuminate needs, interests, desires, possibilities, and options you did not know you have, but there will always be areas of your being that others cannot know or will be unable to see because of their own blinders, training, or experiences, or your own difficulty in articulating these issues. Professionals who lack humility, insight, or capacity for seeing us as individuals may impose their beliefs about order, right action, or goals on clients or use them to fulfill their own needs or ambitions. All of these issues interfere with clear insight and good guidance. Professional insights can be incredibly valuable but they need to be checked against the reality of your own lived experience.

Working with professionals in any area requires vigilance to make the experience useful and effective. The guidelines below may ensure the greatest benefit and offer some options in case interactions do not work out as expected.

Good measures to take when working with any professional include:
1. No matter how much expertise a professional may have, you are the ultimate expert on your needs and situation. Professionals know about services, programs, products, and people in general, but they can never know as much about YOU as you do. Give the professional complete, but concise and accurate information on you and your situation, then let him or her work with you to fill in details if needed. The professional should make recommendations or suggestions but the decisions for the course of action should usually be yours. As a rule, listening closely and considering a professional’s suggestions is wise, but you must make the decision. Insist that your concerns be addressed in any proposed solution or that the reasons why they can’t be explained.

2. Plan ahead for how to make best use of any professional’s services: write lists of issues to be raised and check them off during your discussion. Cover what has changed since your last interaction or the results of any previous intervention. Take notes on what the professional tells you, and identify how you can work with that input to improve your circumstances. Emotions often make us not hear, take in, or remember what we are told when discussing stressful issues; taking notes helps us focus, calms us, and aids recall. If you know a discussion will be stressful, ask if you can record it or bring a friend who can help with recall.

3. Be clear about what you want from the interaction and share that expectation with the professional. Writing out your expectations may aid seeing whether they are reasonable or realistic.
         Consider what you want to be sure does not happen and discuss these concerns proactively. Making a list of the outcomes you do NOT want may help find ways to prevent them.

4. Discuss your preferences for interactions: communicate by phone, email, or in person; many or few, or long or short sessions; duration of services – how many sessions will be needed; directive or non-directive inputs; formatted or standardized interactions or more free-flowing and customized. Be clear about whether your preferences are actually possible, either with this professional or any.

5. Remembering that others, no matter how caring, altruistic, well-qualified, or well-paid, will always have motivations that are different from yours can reduce pain and wasted time and money. Try to imagine what this professional’s motivations, pressures, and goals MUST be: to have good working relationships with other professionals, whoever they are accountable to, other clients, and with you; to maintain a good public image; to make a good income (however s/he defines that); and to prevent legal problems. These concerns will be present in the mind of any professional. How will they affect your interactions?

6. Professionals are often motivated to spend the least time possible with each person to squeeze in as many clients/patients as possible. Sometimes professionals have no choice about this, as with medical providers in an HMO-setting, or they may be under strong economic or job pressure to keep sessions with each person short. Do not demand more than your fair share of a professional’s time but do not accept getting less than you really need or are paying for.

7. Be clear about all costs and follow-up fees from the outset. If your spending for these services must be limited, state that up front. Know what you will get for your money before committing to spending it.

 8. Identify the professional’s biases that might limit his/her ability to help. Can you work around these limitations or do you need someone else? Their biases might result from experiences with previous clients, prejudice, false expectations, over-confidence, lack of humility, insufficient training, or failure to listen or adapt. Every human being has some biases, but if you don’t know what limits this professional, you may not receive the benefit that you should.  
         Just telling someone about your needs is not enough, even when stated emphatically – you have to retain control of the situation. It is also hard for professionals to look past their own training to see the actual person in front of them and not be blinded by their expectations. For example, gym trainers are taught that the first time people are shown a new exercise, they should do at least 12 reps to ensure that it is solidly lodged in their minds and bodies; no matter what a client tells them, they will still push for that number of reps, even when it is medically contraindicated, or the client protests. Few trainers can get beyond their training and habits to listen to and adapt what they do based on the input they get from their client. Be aware – it is very hard to resist pressure from someone who is supposed to be an expert.
9. Know the gaps in your professional’s knowledge or experience, to the degree that this is possible. Where and what did s/he study, which client types does s/he prefer to work with? Can you see references or talk with former clients? Can you see samples of his/her work? Is this person/service rated on Yelp or some other evaluative site?

10. When possible, desired, and practical, insist that the professional train you in the skills to become more able to address these needs for yourself. Even in health-care, we can do a great deal for ourselves and our medical providers can teach us to do so. Organizing skills can and need to be taught so that you will be able to maintain the improvements.

11. NEVER FORGET: your issues and needs will always be more important to you than they can ever be to anyone else. If your professional does not call you back after a reasonable period of time, do not keep hoping that s/he will because “after all, s/he’s a professional” – call him/her back and keep your issue on their to-do list. Do not assume that s/he will remember the details of your situation – provide the essentials needed to advise you. Plan ahead and be as brief and concise as possible, but recap relevant issues to make sure that your professional is working from your essential facts and needs. Ask “when will I hear from you” when you must wait for results, referrals, resources, or other matters; if s/he does not contact you by that time, you should contact him/her with an inquiry.

What recourse do you have if not satisfied? Ideally, this is a question to ask at the beginning of interactions to better decide whether to work with him/her. However, even the most carefully prepared or vetted relationships can go wrong. Here are some options for troubleshooting:

A. Whenever possible, start by talking with the professional. Try to avoid making the person defensive – once anyone becomes defensive, chances for a good solution shrink. Do not be cruel, but be specific, precise, and thorough about how you feel the service did not meet your needs or the established agreement. After you have made your statement, wait for the reply. What does s/he propose to  improve the situation? Is that proposal acceptable? Can you negotiate a better solution? Identify ideal and unacceptable solutions before this conversation. Do not fear asking for your money back or for any other appropriate remediation for services that have not met expectations or standards.

B. The next level of escalation may be to talk with the professional’s supervisor, if s/he has one. State the issues as factually and objectively as possible with no embroidery (non-factual language or statements will damage your credibility). Can the supervisor assign another service provider? Can your billings be discounted or eliminated? Can you be given more hours to make up for what was not accomplished in the time already used? Would an apology from the professional satisfy your distress?

C. If you are not satisfied by the supervisor’s response, there may be layers of recourse above him or her. In some settings, such as a medical center, there may be many levels of appeal to satisfy disputes. If you are aggrieved enough to want to continue fighting, these complaints might best be done in writing. Again, objectivity and factual language will be essential. This level of complaint is most applicable to issues of ethics, competency, or malpractice.

D. If you found the professional through Yelp, or other rating service, that may be the most powerful tool for getting satisfaction. An absolutely factual, accurate review with no emotional language at all will get results where nothing else can or does. Be careful to avoid stating anything you could not prove in court.
Yelp was my recourse for the first mover to Sacramento who initially refused to give me a refund after botching my move; a few weeks after posting a detailed, precise description of everything they did wrong on Yelp the owner changed that position and refunded nearly half of my money.

E. If nothing else works, professional failings that are SERIOUS violations of the standards for professional performance or ethical conduct in that field may be reported to the relevant licensing board.

F. In some situations, public humiliation may be the most effective tactic for securing co-operation from a resistant professional or company. A company that had failed at taking care of the elevator in the senior building I managed refused to release us from a long-term contract. So I threatened to bring a busload of seniors who had been unable to go home because of elevator malfunctions to demonstrate in front of their offices and invite the press. It worked – they let us go.

G. If no other recourse is possible, consulting an attorney may be necessary. However, since this is the most expensive, time-consuming (years), and STRESSFUL solution, it should be a last resort.


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© Gloria Valoris, 2015

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