On being ... advised

By Ingrid Sapona

Two very different stories related to advice came to mind this week as a result of a discussion I had with Terry, a long-time friend and fellow consultant. (As usual, Terry’s not her real name.) The first story relates to something a physician said at an ethics symposium I attended in law school. I don’t remember how the topic of giving patients advice came up, but I’ll never forget the doctor’s comments. He said he absolutely dreads the question: “Doctor, what would you do?”

Given it’s something I could see myself asking, I was interested in his reasoning. He said he believes there’s a moral obligation to not answer that type of question because you can never be sure your answer isn’t coloured by some bias. To explain, he gave what might seem like a convoluted example, but it’s one that’s stuck with me.

He said, “Suppose a husband and wife came to me to learn about the wife’s diagnosis. After thoroughly explaining the various courses of treatment, the husband asks: ‘Doc, what would you do if it was your wife?’” He explained that he could not answer because he worried he might recommend a riskier course of action because of animosity he didn’t even realize he had toward his own wife.

The second story relates to something a career counsellor said at a seminar I attended in the mid-1990s. Again, I don’t remember the context, but I remember her advice. She said, “Never – NEVER – take a cut in pay in a subsequent job.” I found that advice unsettling because, at the time, it so happened I was leaving a well-paying job to begin a low-paying, mandatory internship to qualify as a lawyer in Ontario. After the speech I spoke with her in private. I explained my situation and she moderated her stance somewhat, but I still left feeling like a big loser. I couldn’t help think that if she’d been in my position, she somehow would’ve managed to negotiate a higher salary for the internship.

Both these stories came to mind after my conversation with Terry. I had called her for business advice. We have quite a lot in common professionally. We have almost identical educational backgrounds and experience, and our consulting businesses are very similar. One important professional difference, however, is that Terry’s been in business about four years longer than me. In terms of our home lives, they are quite different. Terry has a spouse who works and they have three teenage kids; I fly solo.

Over the years Terry and I have often discussed billing rates. Her rate has always been about 25% higher than mine, which I figure is appropriate since she’s been in business longer. One thing I’ve especially admired about Terry is her seemingly unshakable belief that there are clients out there who are willing to pay for our expertise and talent and we shouldn’t sell ourselves short. Many times I’ve cried on her shoulder, wondering if I should lower my rate in hopes of attracting more clients. She has steadfastly advised against it.

So, last week when a potential client proposed a project and they were offering a rate that’s 1/3 less than my normal rate, I was upset. Though it was a decent size project, I told the client I thought the fee was quite low and I needed to think about it. After cooling off, I phoned Terry to get her take on it. To be honest, I was expecting her to support me in my outrage over the rate.

After I told her about the project, I was surprised when she said she didn’t think it was a bad rate. OK, I was flabbergasted – and she could tell. She quickly explained why she thought it was respectable (it has to do with the scope of the project and future work that may flow from it). While I could understand her rationale, given her previous stance on rates, I was shocked.

Feeling uncomfortable, more than once during the conversation Terry said “I’m sorry”. I assured her I wanted her view on the whole thing and she shouldn’t be sorry. But, all-the-same, I was unsettled by it. By the time I spoke with Terry, I know that career counsellor’s words were ringing loudly in my ears and I desperately wanted my friend to agree that I shouldn’t accept the low rate.

Indeed, part of me wanted to ask Terry if she’d accept that rate, but I didn’t. When I hung up, I thought about why I hadn’t asked her that point blank. I soon realized that whether Terry would accept the rate isn’t the issue. The issue is whether I’ll accept that rate for the project – and the truth is, she can’t answer that for me. That’s when I thought about that physician’s comment about being asked: “what would you do”?

See, though Terry knows the “facts” of my situation (how slow work has been for me, etc.), I know that decisions – even business decisions – aren’t based on facts alone. Emotions also come into play. In this case, for example, I’ve got emotional issues based on the fact that years ago I did a small project for this company and they were demanding and difficult to please. Do I want to risk going through that again? Or, have I matured so that I’d handle it differently if problems arise? These things clearly weigh in my decision and, though Terry is aware of some of them, how she’d factor them in is bound to differ.

I’m really happy I phoned Terry, but not because of what she said about the rate. I’m glad we chatted because the conversation helped me remember that advice is helpful, but decisions are personal and they’re not something you should let – or expect – anyone to make for you. Thanks Terry…

© 2012 Ingrid Sapona


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