Working with Clients When You (dis)Agree on Values

Working with Clients When You (dis)Agree on Values

There were a few times early in the semester when Partners discussed clients being rude or disrespectful and I have had plenty of one-on-one conversations with people on the team about this. Before October holiday I received some great feedback that it would be even better to publicly share the results of those discussions and outcomes. I’ve been sitting on this for too long and even if it’s not perfectly written or even if I make a mistake in my wording, I’m just going to send it out in hopes that everyone here can read this to understand my intentions and not to nit-pick if I mis-phrased something. I’m aware that in the context of education and learning professionals, every single word does matter – I’m not asking for a free pass here, but rather for you to read with the broader intention of understanding mine, and I hope, ours:

Working in any capacity that involves other people may involve misunderstandings. What is clear to one person may not be clear to another. It’s our responsibility as the service/experience provider to communicate everything that needs to be shared in order to minimize confusion. It’s everyone’s responsibility to agree to certain tacit or explicit agreements of a code of conduct and then act accordingly (spoiler alert: explicit may be better). There also may be cultural differences that are everyone’s responsibility to try to understand – this last part though, will likely and should likely fall more towards us than our clients. It is our responsibility to understand what the customer needs to be satisfied. If we are not up to that challenge, then we honestly don’t deserve to be in business. That is table stakes for any company, school, non-profit organization, or government - to think that we are above understanding our customers’ needs is hubris and will lead to a rapid decline of our organization. Though we may not agree, we need to listen.

When I moved to China originally, living in Anhui province, I remember thinking that parents had no idea what they were doing – they yelled at their children in the street every single day. I remember thinking that these parents were abusive. It wasn’t until I actually spent a few months studying Chinese did I realize these parents were encouraging their children and supporting them (although to me the yelling appeared abrasive and offensive – the content of their language was actually warm, surprisingly enough). This is just one of many differences that we may find in this multicultural environment.

Another one that was super surprising to me to learn about was many parents’ philosophy on winning. Where I come from in the U.S., winning is important, but it’s not the only thing. In fact, people all over the world make fun of Americans for being the ‘land of participation trophies.’ Some of our very own LL Partners have said this to me! I’m not offended by this in the slightest – it is merely another example that where we grow up, who we spend time with, and the external world often shape our belief systems. This shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone: most things goes both ways.

I thought this abrasive ‘yelling’ style of parenting was wrong, until I decided to actually learn the language and listen more closely – I could have and should have looked more closely to see this much earlier. Others have told me the ‘participation trophy’ style of parenting is wrong, though I personally feel that if you look closer, you’ll see a group of people who grow up with high self- esteem.

We all have different approaches to life, parenting, relationships, everything!

So why is this important to our work, if not pedantic?

Though I am certainly no saint, I don’t feel it’s appropriate to judge another person’s actions until you understand their intentions and values. Perhaps you’ve heard of the ‘Why before what’? Or ‘Intent before content’? On the cork board at the LearningCenter for the last two years I have hung a note card “Judge yourself by your actions. Judge others by their intentions.” As someone who constantly wants to improve myself and our community, I feel it necessary to constantly remind myself of the Fundamental Attribution Bias that is all-too-easy of a trap to fall into.

Shortly stated, FAB is the idea that we judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their actions. We assume the best of ourselves and the worst of others. If we are late for a meeting, we tell ourselves, “Oh, well traffic was just bad today, but I’m usually on time.” If someone else is late for a meeting, we tell ourselves, “Oh, wow. This person doesn’t care about me or my time.”

In the first two years of LL’s operation, I found myself being ultra critical of others (LL Partners, Students, and Clients) based on what I saw of their behaviors. What I’m still learning is that it’s not fair to compare my best day against their worst. I think I can do a better job of giving people the benefit of the doubt. I have absolutely no idea what battles they’re fighting on any given day. This goes all the way back to “Give. Give. Get.” Provide more value for the other person than you expect in return. Provide more patience and understanding.

So why does this matter when it comes to our work at LearningLeaders?

Because I’ve heard all of us (me included) make this mistake when we refer to parents or students. “That parent just doesn’t get it – you can’t make a champion overnight.” Or “Parents helping students write their speeches is cheating and just plain wrong.” While I may personally agree with these statements (and maybe you do too), I’m not sure if it’s fair to scorn clients who don’t agree with them at least until we have given them a chance to express their WHY to us. We need to at least give them a chance to explain.

I was really reminded of this when talking with a number of parents early on this semester. Within the first two weeks, I had met with nearly half a dozen parents about ‘issues’ or ‘situations’ reported to me by LL Partners. In each case (except for one, when we had a WeChat call), I met with the parent and listened to their concerns and expressed what we feel as an organization. It was amazing at how much I learned from these meetings and also how much I was reminded of our duty to continue first listen and then to share our mentality with our clientele, who may not be in alignment with us.

To report on a few meetings that I had with parents early on in the semester:

One parent specifically posted in a WeChat group about a certain coaches not being native English speakers.

Meeting with the parent, she said that she had met people from this country in her life (more than ten but less than twenty, she said). None of them spoke English, or if so, it was broken English. She was alarmed when she had been told specifically that all of our coaches speak fluent English that her child was placed in a course where the coach (as she thought) would not speak English. When she used the Chinese search engine Baidu to ask “Do People from this country speak English?” the answer came up that they speak their native language. Looks like we need to also have a class for parents about how to use search engines properly!

I shared my concerns that she hadn’t properly understood the background of our coaches and their amazing track record, both competitively and coaching/teaching. I shared with her our recruitment process in detail, to which point she was really amazed. I shared our philosophy on multi-cultural and multi-ethic coaching staff, to which she said she understood in general, though said she still felt someone from a native English-speaking country would be better to teach English Debate. I said I understood that concern, though asked for faith that by the end of the semester, her opinion would be changed because the student would have an amazing experience.

At the start of the conversation, I have to admit, I thought to myself, “Wow! This is going to be an awkward conversation – I’m about to sit down with someone who has massive prejudices and perhaps is racist.” While I can’t say the conversation was as smooth as having a cup of tea together, I was pleasantly surprised as to how it went. I’m glad that I sat down with this parent and explained our thoughts and had the chance to understand hers. She felt her expectation of having a native English speaker was not matched. I shared with her that although that was true, she had something even better on her side, these coaches!

Another parent specifically requested male coaches and wanted to switch out of a class with two female coaches. After meeting with this parent, I discovered that this student has exclusively female teachers in school. The parent did not think that was good for the student. The parent stated that if 100% of the teachers were female, then the student would not learn a more masculine style of speaking. I stepped in at this point and shared with the parent it was my feeling that styles of speaking and confidence are not solely (or even largely) based on gender, but rather internal confidence in the ability to perform at a given task/ challenge, experience in said challenge, and the ‘stakes of the game’ that is being played. The parent relented that this was indeed the case, though still wanted to have at least one male coach/teacher this semester so her child could have more diversity in teachers/ coaches.

Before meeting with this parent, I thought to myself, “Wow - This is going to be an awkward conversation – I’m about to sit down with someone who is sexist.” It wasn’t until I understood the parent’s WHY that I found that currently 100% of this student’s teachers were female and the parent wanted diversity in the group of teachers.

Ironically, after this conversation, we found that we both agreed 100% that diversity of perspectives, backgrounds, and genders was a good thing! This parents’ values were aligned with the organization’s, though the situation had been introduced to me by another LL Partner as, “This parent doesn’t like female teachers. She thinks female teachers aren’t as good as male teachers and wants to switch. I can’t believe it.”

Another parent only wanted coaches from the USA to work with her child.

After talking with the parent, I discovered that this student had been previously taking courses at another debate training institution in Shanghai. There, the student took about a year of Public Forum (USA – style debate) courses. When the student transferred to LearningLeaders, the family discovered that whereas all of these other coaches were from the USA, LearningLeaders coaches are from all over the world. It made sense, therefore, to the parent and the student, that a coach from the USA would coach Public Forum best, because they had learned that Public Forum was a USA-centric style. It didn’t make sense to the parent that coaches from Europe of Asia or Africa would be able to coach this style as well as an American. After all, it is American-Style Public Forum Debate!

What I shared was that in fact, all of our coaches are equipped to coach Public Forum debate courses. I explained that although it is a USA-centric style, it doesn’t mean that other coaches aren’t familiar with it and how in fact the variety of styles of debate change throughout our program. This parent was not aware that Parliamentary debate styles, BP, or WSDC existed. The parent also was not aware that we train coaches after they join the LL Team – she was under the impression that coaches join our team and all they do is coach debate, but there were no other responsibilities or trainings. After speaking with the parent, she understood more about our coaching team, the styles of debate, and how we ensure that our coaches are best prepared to help students succeed.

Before meeting with the parent, I was under the impression that she was favoring coaches from the USA for some reason of elitism or prejudice, perhaps on language ability or another trait. Rather, the favoritism was due to a lack of understanding about the styles of debate and how they are different as well as a general lack of understanding about our program and progression of courses.

I’ll spare you details of other meetings, because they will invoke a similar pattern – 1) parent complains, 2) certain LL Team member feels disrespected, 3) complaint escalates, 4) realization that the parent’s motivation was never fully articulated, 5) complaint is diffused. Language abilities aside, I’m confident that everyone on this team can engage with parents on this level and better understand their motivations and ideals. So please, before we rush to judge clients and call them ‘sexist,’ or ‘racist,’ let’s please try to understand their intentions. It may be true that they are sexist or racist. It also may not. Until we find out for ourselves, let’s resist the urge from labeling others and judging others, please.

I understand that this can be compounded by the fact that some of us (myself included) don’t speak fluent Chinese and so that certain sentiments or insights can be lost in translation. In these cases, we need to be especially conscious that we may have misunderstandings and rather than jumping to conclusions, we must first seek to understand and then to be understood. Having a conversation with a parent with someone to help translate isn’t as awkward as you might think.

(Pro tip: speak only for 15-20 seconds at a time and then let the translator do the rest of the work before starting to talk again. Trying to translate 60 seconds of content from memory is hard work.)

Regarding step 2 above: “certain LL team member feels disrespected” – I cannot dispute for a moment, nor would want to, that members of our coaching or support teams have felt disrespected. I don’t want to cheapen that, overlook it, or disregard it. I think many of us have felt this way at some point or another from parents or even students. It doesn’t feel good at all. What to do about it? I honestly don’t know and I’ll need to think harder about it. Requesting an apology from parents to me seems reasonable if there was a misunderstanding from their side. Otherwise, I think it is quite challenging to convey besides in a one-on-one or small group sit- down meeting that there were crossed wires or misaligned expectations. I think face-to-face dialogue is the best way to resolve this, though I am open to other suggestions if people have other methods of conflict resolution.

I want to acknowledge a few other observations here too:

  1. It’s possible, and in fact very probable, that stories change. Parents say one thing to one person and another thing to another. So it’s often hard to know 100% what is true and what isn’t. I recognize this especially when clients speak with me when compared to more ‘junior’ members of staff – there is definitely an asymmetry in communication style and care.
  2. There are times when there are no believable ‘explanations’ for what a parent might say. For example, if a parent was to say, “I don’t want my daughter in a class with XYZ coach because he/ she is from Croatia and I only want to coaches from England because people from England are smarter than Croatian and everyone from Croatia is not as good as anyone from England.” That would be definitely more challenging to understand and work with because we would all likely disagree. I think it’s our duty to still try our best to understand the underlying motivation, reason why the parent believes that, etc.
  3. There are times when people are just directly disrespectful – calling names, threatening with physical violence, etc. These are behaviors that we don’t want to support or reward. It is also these exact moments that require the most care to diffuse. We have absolutely no idea what is causing a parent to act in a certain way – they could be facing personal challenges, health challenges, business challenges, marital challenges, etc. – we do not know. They might also just be a jerk – we do not know. So still in these moments it is imperative to seek to understand why the customer is angry before jumping to conclusions.

In some of these cases, I do think it is a good idea to ask customers or families not to return to LearningLeaders. I fully support that. However, I cannot fully support that if we are indeed the instigator or underlying cause of such an action. An example would be the following:

At the intramural competition, a parent became visibly upset because his daughter wasn’t able to participate in the time slot she had registered for. The family was not informed of this until they showed up the morning of the event. Does ‘non-participation’ justify a parent raising his voice at our coaches or staff? In my opinion, absolutely not. Though we need to examine the situation and find that the root cause for his discontent or anger is that we may have failed to communicate this to the parent and student effectively. Upon recommendation to ‘kick out’ this parent from the program, I said, ‘No.’ We messed up. Did he as well? Yes, I think so. In this situation, though, I think it is unfair of us to expect forgiveness for our mistake from the parent though not extend forgiveness to the client for his mistake. (that is, unless we have clearly-delineated guidelines and parents agree to of what behavior is encouraged, tolerable, and intolerable!).

I will defend our team composition, team’s actions, and team’s mistakes to our clients until the end of time. That is, for better or for worse, part of my job. While it is always going to be a judgement call and necessarily subjective, I have and will continue to back up the LL team in conversations with clients. Maybe these conversations aren’t public, but I feel confident in saying that a member of our senior leadership has not thrown specific people under the bus when talking with parents, instead taking ownership themselves. That doesn’t mean, though, that I can’t agree with the clients that we have made a mistake in organization, communication, or execution.

I just want to be clear so this doesn’t get twisted: if we made a mistake, then we should own up to it – I will still support the team and defend you, though I will look to fix the situation as quickly as I can. If I feel we did not make a mistake and a client claims that we did, then I will still support the team and point out that a client is mistaken. Having done this in the past multiple times or refusing to budge on certain issues, I know for a fact I have sent families to our competitors, where they can find a ‘Yes Man.’

(For anyone who is unsure if we’re actually willing to put our money where our mouths are in terms of this, my answer is this: We already have fired clients. Multiple times. As long as we feel that we are not in the wrong, we stand our ground. We refused parents’ requests for custom classes – they went a competitor. We refused to make extra room in a ‘more senior’ coach’s session – they went to a competitor. We refused to skip students up one or more levels – they went to a competitor. It’s happened before and will continue to happen. Let it – that shouldn’t be our chief concern.)

I’ve also been asked the question, “What do we do if a parent comes to us and wants to switch courses based on the gender, background, or language ability of the coach – do we let them?”

I’m of the perspective that it is our duty to inform the parents and students of the detriments and benefits of such a move but we cannot prescribe what they do. Our role, both in the learning environment as well as outside of it, is to guide our students and parents towards the right decision without making it for them. If a parent was to approach me and say they had concerns about a certain coach or practice group, I would request 20 minutes of their time to sit down with them and explain why the current group was indeed the best fit for the student. I have never and will never suggest that a student move from one group to another based on the experience level of a coach or their country of origin.

Further, if we don’t allow them to change, what we will find quickly is that we are pushing the truth underground. Parents will come to us in the first week of the semester and say “Whoops – basketball practice time changed – we need to switch to Saturday.” We allow that all the time. If parents realize they can simply use this excuse to mask a deeper concern, they will simply use this excuse. In not allowing the change to happen if a concern is expressed on account of coach or gender or language, we are encouraging parents not to tell us the truth. I think this is a mistake – I would absolutely rather engage with a parent on the topic of why a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic coaching team is a good thing than to never have the conversation in the first place. At the very least, I’ve now had a 20 minute conversation with them expressing my beliefs and why I think it’s best for the student. If we do not allow this change to happen, we are merely going to drive clients to start lying to us. I don’t think that helps anyone. We don’t see the real issues as they come up. We don’t trust our clients. They don’t trust us. They tell their friends it’s better to lie in order to get what you want with LL. Lose – lose situation.

I’d also say that there will be a percentage of our clientele that is greater than zero that have prejudices. I believe that we should provide as much information as we can, though Thought Leadership, client onboarding, and general coach and administrative conduct to support the sharing of our values in this regard. It is unreasonable to expect 100% of our clients to mirror our values wholesale, though I think it is reasonable to shoot for as high of a percentage as possible!

What are the next steps?

I’m open to suggestions from the team! My initial reaction, and one I’ve talked about with one of our Partners one day in PD, is that we draft a clearly spelled-out Terms of Service that we post on our website and include on invoices/travel trip registrations/Program Guides (we had spoken about this some time ago, but there it was never posted) that delineates what behaviors from students and clients we welcome, what behaviors we can tolerate, and what behaviors we cannot. There is already a shortened version of this in the Program Guide, but I believe it is just focusing on students. I welcome anyone’s desire to be involved to draft this Terms of Service and will look for leadership from the Coaching (not just Experience) and Community Teams especially, since you are the ones who are most intimately familiar with the challenges coaches and Community Directors face when speaking with clients.

As I believe we have not done so yet, it is not fair to our clients to hold them accountable to a standard they are not aware of. It would be similar if we did not have a Team Handbook yet expected everyone to abide by certain policies.

So, all-in-all:

  • We need to be aware and consistently reminded that not everyone shares our values or mindset. Let us seek first to understand.
  • If we are at fault, then we need to make things right. If we are not at fault, then we will let the clients know that.
  • Certain behaviors are not appreciated, though unless we make it clear to our clients about what is unacceptable, we will have no recourse.
  • We have ‘fired’ clients in the past – we can continue to do so. Some of them have changed their ways and come back. Others have not. Both are okay to me.
  • Let’s not let the 1% of ‘bad apples’ spoil the lot. We have so many amazing students and parents to work with here at LL – if getting sucked down in the negative energy isn’t your thing, then great – don’t get sucked down into it! :)