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Back when I was a first-year law student more than 40 years ago, my civil procedure professor – the patent law legend Irving Kayton – said the most important question you could ask a client is, “what do you want?”

It is a deceptively simple question, and it is always astonishing – and revealing – how often clients in the midst of a crisis or conflict struggle to answer it.

Recently, we were advising an organization whose members had taken an action its board vehemently opposed. Board members vented their outrage to us, and explained at length how this action would harm the organization.

“OK,” we said, “but the deed is done. What do you want now? What is the objective? Is it to invite the members to reverse what they had done? Lay the groundwork for future negotiation? Prepare the membership for a legal battle? Buy time? Inoculate against negative media? Do we want to conciliate or sharpen the battle lines in anticipation of a fight?”

For a few seconds, crickets.

But afterward came a more focused and clarifying discussion. It ultimately established a strategy from which the communications strategy and related messaging could logically flow.

Three lessons from this experience:

  1. Clients don’t always know what they want, especially when they’re angry and in the middle of a crisis or conflict. Asking this seemingly obvious question, “What do you want?” can be a critical first step in helping them move past the anger and do something constructive.
  2. Communication strategy should flow from overall strategy, not the other way around. BUT . . . discussion of communications presents an excellent opportunity to have that higher-level conversation – only if you’re prepared with the right questions and possess the skill and situational awareness needed to drive the strategic analysis.
  3. By doing those things effectively, you can elevate your own role. You can become a trusted advisor to CEOs and Boards, with a full seat at the table alongside the lawyers and other senior advisors, rather than be perceived just as a communications tactician.

So, what do you want?