Consulting people who know one another too well

Peace keepers have been coming to the Middle East for decades, trying to bridge differences between nations which are assumed not to know one another well enough to cut a deal. The truth is that a deal hasn’t been cut  is because people know one another far too well!

Consultants often make a similar error; the goal of this post is to spell out how best to consult with people who know one another too well.

Let’s take an example. Rob and Tyler have been working together for 16 years, and will work together until they retire.

  • Rob believes that Tyler under-promises in order to minimize risk taking. Rob “does not believe a word” that Tyler says.
  • Tyler believes that Rob will do anything to “look good” at Tyler’s expense. Tyler feels that Rob would “sell his own mother” to get promoted.

Rob and Tyler have lunch together every day. They discuss sports and their shared hobby, running. Rob and Tyler joke with another quite a bit and appear to be jovial in one another’s presence. The formal meetings between them produce fuzzy decisions which are undone the moment they leave the room.

Recently Tyler and Rob have just had shared a major failure. Due to miscommunication and excessive ambiguity, a very faulty product was delivered to a key customer resulting in the loss of the client. The CEO has asked an OD consultant to work together with Rob and Tyler “to improve things without rocking the boat”.

Clearly, Rob and Tyler have learnt a pattern to cope with one another that it is almost impossible to change without rocking the boat and exposing the shit that lies beneath the surface.

I would suggest 3 DOs and 3 DON’Ts in such situations.


  • Focus on very, very specific issues, not on “trust” or “communication”
  • Use a written problem statement issued by a shared senior manager
  • Act as a “go-between” (not face to face)  focusing on building agreement and zeroing in  on disagreement.


  • Don’t try to break most of  their entire coping patterns; focus on changing very small things.
  • Don’t focus on what happened, rather focus on what should happen in the future.
  • Don’t drag things out; rather work quickly before they learn to adapt themselves to you.








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2 thoughts on “Consulting people who know one another too well

  1. dear mentor,

    I am so happy to read your article. You revealed the essence of the relationship and how to deal with the relationship with changes, it’s blood of making two people who know each other too well. Thanks for your always insights sharing.

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