Teaching Your Clients to Fish Starts by Leaving the Rod and Reel at Home

fishing“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”? (Maimonides)

As a former classroom teacher, and now a teacher of advocates, I’ve always embraced the “teach a man to fish” concept. It’s part of my core. It’s in my DNA. It’s what I do with both my patient empowerment and my patient advocacy work. Many of you have been beneficiaries. And my great reward has been to watch you go off into the waters to successfully fish on your own as your practices grow and thrive.

It’s all about helping others help themselves.

Many of you, especially those of you who have worked in helping professions prior to your interest in patient advocacy (nurses, physicians, teachers) consider yourself to be fishing teachers, too. It’s your natural reaction to questions and situations to want to help by helping others help themselves. Whether or not you’ve ever heard that quotation from Maimonides, your approach to others has always been to teach them how to fix things themselves, rather than to simply fix things for them. You’ve taken the long view of how to help them the best, by giving them the tools they need to get what they need.

So it’s with some irony today that I’m going to tell you that in order to teach your clients to fish, to help them the best you can in the long run, to be the most successful advocate you can be, you must resist teaching them to fish in the short run.

Let me repeat that: In order to succeed as a private advocate, start by leaving the rod and reel alone.

Say what?

Let’s look at an example:

Mrs. Swenson phones you to see whether you can help her get the information she needs from her doctor. She has been diagnosed, doesn’t really understand the diagnosis, wants to get a second opinion, needs her medical records, and the doctor’s office is not cooperating. Then she asks, Is this something you can help her with?

Here’s how many of us would reply to Mrs. Swenson: We would explain what we know about the diagnosis, the questions that need answers, we would perhaps tell her of other diagnoses that are possible alternatives, we would tell her which doctors we know of who could supply her with a second opinion, and we would give her information about getting the records she needs. Then we would say, “Yes – these are things I can do for you.”

And – almost guaranteed – Mrs. Swenson would hang up the phone, and we would never hear from her again. Why> Because we taught her to fish. We gave her all the information she needs to move forward. Isn’t that what we, as advocates, are supposed to do?

No. It isn’t. In fact, most successful, professional, private advocates respond very differently to Mrs. Swenson. They don’t teach her to fish. Instead, they tell her they would be capable and happy to teach her to fish if she hires them to do so.

Meaning, their response to Mrs. Swenson would be to say, “Yes, I see why you want to get a second opinion. I can help you get copies of your records and set up a second opinion appointment for you. This is how I work….” and then they would proceed to explain how they charge for their services, and ask her “If you’ll share your email address or fax number I’d be happy to supply a copy of my contract to you.”

No teaching involved. No answers given. No suggestions made. Mrs. Swenson has no more capability – AT THAT POINT – of fishing the second opinion waters than she had before she dialed the phone because no one has taught her what needs to be done.

(Note: once the contract is signed and payment is made – that’s the time to help Mrs. Swenson learn to fish to the extent it makes sense to do so, but not until after Mrs. Swenson has hired you to do that teaching.)

If you’re still not grasping this concept, let me explain it another way.

Say you get thrown in jail (not unlike being diagnosed with something scary). You call a lawyer. Would the lawyer tell you how to post bail, and what to say to the judge at your hearing? No. The lawyer would tell you those things need to be done, that he/she can do them for you, and what it will cost to take care of the situation. And you will pay that lawyer for his/her services – because you’re scared, and you don’t know how to do it yourself.

Smart private, independent advocates know they must resist that first, ingrained, automatic reaction of helping a potential client by teaching them to do the work themselves without first being engaged as the professional who will teach them.

And the truth is: it is much better for the client in the long run to handle it this way, too. Even if they could eventually accomplish what you do professionally, their outcomes might not be nearly as positive as they would be if you handled it for them. Put another way: we can all learn to put a worm on the hook and drop it into the water, but that doesn’t mean we know where the fish are, how to catch the biggest or tastiest ones, or even how to fillet and cook them (or make tasty homemade hushpuppies!)

Those tasks should be handled by those with far more knowledge and professionalism. Like private professional advocates.

Are you guilty of teaching potential clients to fish?

If so, resist the urge to help them or teach them too early in the relationship. As they tell their stories, or ask their questions, instead respond with answers like, “Yes, that’s something I can help you with” or “I’ve helped others with similar situations”? or “I have lots of experience helping clients with those kinds of needs.”? Followed by, “Let me tell you how I work,” then quickly followed by, “Would you like a copy of my contract?” and “How soon would you like to get started?”

That shift in approach will both grow your practice, and improve both your clients’ outcomes and yours. Win-win – even if we’re taking a detour on Maimonides.

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1 thought on “Teaching Your Clients to Fish Starts by Leaving the Rod and Reel at Home”

  1. Hi Trisha.

    This is something that means a lot to me. I definitely agree. Clients must learn to do certain things by themselves.

    As you said, it is much better in the long run for them if we teach them to fish themselves. It’s also much better for us, as we can manage our time more appropriately to earn more and get more done.

    Thanks for sharing this topic.


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