​Tact and the Art of Bringing About Positive Change​​

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"Thank you for meeting with us today. As you know, we have already found quite a few things wrong in your department."

One of the first client meetings I ever attended was also one of the least successful. The meeting was a failure from the very beginning. The internal auditor's opening statement about finding "things wrong" put our client immediately on the defensive. As a result, the client pushed back, the auditor stood his ground, and the conversation degenerated into little more than an argument.

"But this is wrong. You need to fix it," the internal auditor complained. "You just don't understand my department," the client shot back. "You are an auditor. What makes you think you know so much about our operations?"

It became difficult to come to any agreement, even on minor points.

As the newest auditor on the team, I felt trapped. I was at the meeting only to observe, but things obviously were not going well. An internal audit manager finally stepped in — far too late, in my opinion — and tried to defuse the situation. But the damage — both to any chance of a productive meeting and to the overall relationship – was done. Eventually, we decided to push pause, end the meeting early, and try again another day.

There is a common misconception that internal auditing is simply about finding what's wrong and telling people how to fix it. If only it were that simple. At its essence, internal auditing is the art of bringing about positive change. But we all know that getting people to do what you want takes more than telling them what they should do. Paradoxically, the more forcefully we argue our points, the more likely our clients often reject them.

That day was one of the few times when I wondered whether I had chosen the right profession. Would all client meetings become this contentious? What would I have done?

When we returned to our offices that day, we reported the problem to the CAE, who helped us, calmly, to discuss what we might do different the next time. Some of those tips stick with me today. To avoid an audit meeting from going south:

  1. Start off on a positive foot. It's easier to come to agreement on difficult issues if you have already established a rapport. So, rather than tackling what may be the most important, and potentially most contentious, issue first, start with something you know that you and your client are likely to agree upon.
  2. Avoid becoming defensive. It's natural for anxious internal audit clients to sometimes become defensive, and they might "strike back" inappropriately. But if you let yourself become defensive, too, any discussion will quickly turn into battle. Stay calm, and confident, even if your client does not.
  3. Ask for their opinion. A firm demand to "fix it" can raise hackles, while the phrase "I wonder what would happen if" can lead your client to seriously consider alternatives. Tactfully worded questions are almost always a good way to get your client to consider their options. Consider asking, "What do you think would happen if we tried doing this?" or, "What do you think about?" By asking for their opinion, rather than demanding action, you are showing respect and leaving them feeling in a position of decision-maker.
  4. Demonstrate that you are on the same team. Instead of saying, "You really should," try phrases such as, "We might consider" or "Do you think we should try?" By framing your recommendation in terms of "we," instead of "you," you can demonstrate that you are on the client's side.
  5. Accentuate the positive. Even when a process is broken, you often can find something good to say about it. So, instead of "This doesn't work," try, "This part of the process is working really well. Do you think it might be even more effective if we follow up by . . . ?"
  6. Give an inch, gain a mile. If you're willing to concede certain points to help make your case, you will often have a stronger position. Of course, proceed with caution. We can't decide to not report an important issue, but there's often more than one "right way" of doing things. You may be able to surrender on a minor, non-reportable issue or on an insignificant wording change. In doing so, you may find that your client is more likely to have an open mind to other, more substantive issues.
  7. Talk less, listen more. The person who talks the most doesn't necessarily win an argument, or convince anyone of anything. Listening courteously and taking the time to understand your client's point of view can help you to convince them of alternatives. Learn to recognize the goals, beliefs, and motivations behind their remarks, and you are halfway to bringing them to understanding your point of view.
  8. Do your homework. It's important to know all the facts before making suggestions. You will gain credibility if you thoroughly understand both sides of the situation and can illustrate your point with solid examples and facts.
  9. Dangle the carrot, withhold the stick. It's much easier to change points of view by demonstrating benefits, than by making threats. If you are able to convince your client that they will directly benefit by accepting your suggestion, the odds of winning them over will rise dramatically. The trick is to be enthusiastic without "over-selling" your ideas. Most people tend to become wary of promises that sound too good to be true, but if you are honest about the expected payoff and positive about the benefits, you will likely gain your client's agreement.
  10. Establish mutual respect. You will rarely convince anyone of anything if they believe you do not respect them. It should go without saying, for example, that you need to maintain eye contact and never interrupt when your client is talking. Negative body language or inattention to their point of view can result in lasting damage to important client relationships.

Isaac Newton once said, "Tact is the art of making a point without making an enemy." Being tactful is just that — having the ability to communicate our messages clearly while being sensitive to those around us. Being tactful does not mean that internal auditors should ignore the facts or hide what we believe. It does mean we should present our ideas in ways that make them more palatable. In the long run, it will almost always lead to better decision-making and client relationships.

What are some other tips?

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