Developing Your Own Style

As important as counseling is to our business life, some newer exchangors may mistakenly believe that taking one counseling class, even from a high caliber instructor, is enough. A single course in counseling is a good beginning, but it is only the start of finding your own style.

Most experienced exchangors have taken multiple counseling courses and know that their individual counseling style has been developed by taking what works for them from a number of sources.

I found my counseling style and comfort level by taking classes from seven or eight different instructors, and repeating some courses two or three times, and I am still learning.

My first two counseling classes contributed greatly to my career and I’d like to share a lesson learned from each class with the reader.

My very first counseling course was from one of the master counselors and teachers, Charles Chatham. The five-day course included a series of lectures by Chatham, followed by intensive one-on-one practice with other students. We learned to ask questions that could not be answered with one-word answers, and we practiced waiting for 15 seconds after an answer before asking another question. During the practice sessions, we struggled with the exacting techniques and timing.

By midweek, I began to wonder if it was worth the effort. Would these techniques really work with a client? We were soon to learn first hand the answer to that question.

Early in the week, Chatham requested one of the students to invite his client to sit with Chatham for a live counseling session in front of the students. On Thursday evening we returned after dinner to observe the session. The client who had accepted the invitation was an elderly gentleman who owned a large number of rental homes. The student had told his client that the client would have an opportunity to sit and chat about his real estate holdings with an industry leader in creative real estate, Charles Chatham.

The stage was arranged so that the client sat facing a big desk and a huge high-back chair where Chatham appeared to be “holding court.” With the audience sitting behind the client, the lights were lowered and the counseling began. After the customary amenities, Chatham asked a question and waited for the answer. Chatham looked absolutely engrossed in the client’s answer. He sat there with his hand to his face, his thumb under his chin and his finger across his lips, looking pensive. When the client paused after his answer, Chatham waited. After a several seconds of silence, the client would start talking again to amplify his answer and fill the void of silence. Chatham would then ask a question that logically followed from the client’s answer. Within ten minutes, the client had forgotten completely that there was an audience of a hundred or more students sitting behind him. Within twenty minutes, the client was telling Chatham things in confidence that he never wanted his wife to know! I’ve often wondered what the client thought when he later realized that the audience had heard all of the confidential information that he had conveyed to Chatham.

We were all amazed by this demonstration. The techniques really worked. After that memorable counseling session, I felt that if I were to do an adequate job of counseling, I would need to adopt the mannerisms and techniques of Charles Chatham.

I did not take my second counseling course for almost a year, so I spent that year trying very hard to get comfortable with the Chatham method. I bought a high-back chair for my office and tried to emulate the mannerisms of Chatham. I asked intelligent questions, most of which included the words, who, which, what, when, and to what extent, and I received good answers. I only occasionally slipped into questions that could be answered by yes or no. However, I was not at ease waiting for 15 seconds after the client finished the answer, as set out by Chatham, in order to wait for “the real answer.” In my counseling sessions I started “cheating,” first waiting only for 10 seconds, then 5 seconds, and eventually I started ignoring the waiting rule altogether.

A year had passed and my next counseling seminar was with Royce Ringsdorf, another pioneer of creative marketing and a master teacher. Royce Ringsdorf was a classy gentleman and a successful broker, who, regretfully passed away late last year. In fact, it was his loss that started me thinking about this article.

Shortly after the Ringsdorf class started, I was astounded at the difference in counseling styles between Ringsdorf and Chatham. Ringsdorf told us that the important thing was to build confidence with the client. He said, “The client will know that you are a professional by the quality of your questions.” As with Chatham, Ringsdorf advocated intelligent listening as the key element to successful counseling. But Ringsdorf added, “There are no hard rules about the questioning and listening process. Whatever works for you is OK.” He went on, “Some of you may have taken the Chatham course. I know that waiting for 15 seconds after an answer works for some people, but I’m not comfortable with that much silence!”

Wow, I felt like I had just been released from bondage. The guilt that I had been carrying for “not doing it right” had just vanished. I was free! Since then, I have thanked Ringsdorf on a number of occasions for that gift.

On the first morning of that class, Ringsdorf arrived wearing a dark-blue three-piece suit, black shoes, white shirt and a yellow “power tie.” If he had been an actor, and if Central Casting needed someone to play a Senator, they would have called on Royce Ringsdorf for the role.

During that morning session, he addressed a topic that he called “subconscious counseling.” He discussed the important part that a professional dress code plays in counseling. His message was that, to be professional in the eyes of the client, you need to dress the part. When a student asked him about how to dress in different parts of the country, he had a simple answer: “Obviously, the dress code for professionals will be different in Texas than in California or in the Midwest. The easiest way to find out what you should be wearing in any given community is to go to the local bank and observe what the bankers are wearing.”

At noon, he dismissed the class for lunch and said that he had some matters that needed his attention and that he might be a couple of minutes late. When the class was back from lunch, sure enough, Ringsdorf showed up several minutes late. He entered the room wearing a gaudy red Hawaiian shirt, bright yellow and blue plaid Bermuda shorts, and he was still wearing his black shoes and dark blue socks. The entire class was shocked and we all started laughing. Ringsdorf looked puzzled and asked, “Why are you laughing, I’m the same person who walked into class this morning in my three-piece suit. I haven’t changed, but it is obvious that your perception of me has changed.” He had certainly made his point about dress code. That was over 25 years ago and I can still see him standing there, a picture to behold, taking the extra effort to drive home his lesson.

These two gentlemen, and the other instructors who taught me client counseling have added confidence to the way I do business and have contributed in no small measure to my family’s well being. For that, I thank them all.

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