Organizer-Client Communication: Dos and Don'ts
What to highlight and what to avoid in our communication styles between Organizer & Client.
I recently attended a training titled; Reasoning with Unreasonable People: Focus on Disorders of Emotional Regulation. My but we mental health professionals are pompous little buggers, aren’t we?!
I had to chuckle given the assumption from the title that all the conference attendees were deemed reasonable and all others unreasonable. Truth be told, the presenter of the conference, Dr. Mark Schneider, admitted he wouldn’t have selected that title either, stating it was chosen by the company putting on the training. You have to love a good marketing tactic! It got me in the door! I attended the conference to keep up my social work license, but was able to glean some relevant information for my work as a Professional Organizer.
The presenter had a whole section on “Health Care Provider – Patient Communication.” I found this especially useful given my work as an Organizer with clients. He talked about the process of shared decision making and specifically highlighted behaviors to avoid which I found to be helpful. Allow me to share some do’s and don’ts with you.
Shared decision making is just that; inviting the client to participate in the decision making process by allowing them to understand they have choices and that their goals and concerns are a part of the process. We can do this using the following steps:
Present the options. Keep in mind there are always options even if they are ones we don’t provide. If I’m working with a client in a closet and they come across a box of old pictures they want to have sorted and organized, I can present a few basic options as suggestions initially. But if the client wants to get in-depth with the photograph organizing, I would recommend a certified APPO (Association of Professional Photo Organizers) member as photo organizing is not a service I offer. It’s important to allow clients the decision to choose services to meet their needs even if they’re ones outside of our scope of work. Be honest with clients about your training and expertise so they can make informed choices.
Provide information on the risks and benefits involved. Just like patients in the health care field can have unrealistic ideas about their course of treatment, efficacy of medications, etc., so can organizing clients have unrealistic expectations about the outcome of a project. It’s important to present the pros and cons of organizing any space by trying to give accurate information about how long a project will take, what organizing gear can be purchased, if any, with the client’s budget and what they can reasonably expect a space to look like when finished. We never want to mislead a client by having them think their home will end up looking like the cover of Architectural Digest!
Help the client evaluate the options based on their goals and concerns. When you start to list the pros and cons of the project, it’s important to identify the variables that are most important to the client and to rate those. Something might be considered a pro (ie; alphabetizing your spice rack), but if your goal is to get your pantry in order to cook more with your children who are too young to read, then it’s not a priority to have your spices in alpha order.
Assist with implementation. Here’s where we clarify the conversation with our client and look to map out the next steps. We want to reiterate back to the client their goals and priorities for the space and begin to come up with a game plan to take action. So if you’re hearing the client say they want to be able to park their car in the garage, then you need to outline the steps involved in sorting through their wall to wall, floor to ceiling pile of clutter. You’ll have to discuss ordering a dumpster or calling junk removers, because clearly, moving a few boxes and adding a shelving unit is not going to get their SUV to fit!
In addition to practicing the steps of shared decision making with clients, it’s important to try to avoid common pitfalls which include blocking, lecturing and premature reassurance.
An example of blocking would be changing the subject because you are uncomfortable. We also block clients by failing to respond to a question or concern. When speaking with organizing clients, we should be aware of our own sensitivities and weaknesses and be able to respond appropriately and professionally in any given situation. I took on a client whose husband was suffering from ALS. Automatically my sensitivities were heightened as this client’s spouse reminded me of a family member of mine who is struggling with Parkinson’s Disease. Both illnesses are degenerative diseases that affect movement and motor skills. As the client was talking about organizing medications and medical supplies, I had to remain present and responsive despite my own internal dialogue going on.
Lecturing is where a professional delivers too much information without seeking a client response. Just because we’re experts in the industry doesn’t mean everyone wants to hear our soapbox speech about the merits of Julie Morgenstern’s SPACE method or the benefits of David Allen’s Getting Things Done philosophy! We need to make sure we’re seeking confirmation from our clients that they understand the process of working with us and be able to elicit feedback and questions from them. I like to provide my clients with no more than two take-away points in a session so as not to put them on information overload.
Lastly, premature reassurance is where you provide comfort before you understand the problem. I know when I’m struggling with something, I don’t like to hear, “It’ll be okay” or “Don’t worry, it will all work out.” When we encounter clients who have been struggling for years with chronic disorganization or hoarding, telling them, “Everything will be alright” is incredibly meaningless. Essentially this assumes we’re both talking about the same “everything” when in fact that may not be the case. I prefer to say things to clients such as “I’m here for you” and “Let’s take things one step at a time” until I can truly understand the problem and can provide more concrete forms of encouragement.
I hope both Professional Organizers and clients alike can use some of the techniques I’ve outlined here to form a better working relationship. Our goal should always be to come up with a reasonable solution for all involved! Don't you agree?