The editor of Contract Professional chose the name for my column there, “The Big Picture.” He told me he chose the name “because you (Jerry) look at the business of contracting and consulting and the people skills involved, which translate across all skill sets and even industries” — in short, The Big Picture.

That’s flattering — but why would you want to look at the Big Picture? If you’re like me, you’re often called into an assignment because you’re supposed to be an “expert.” You know what an expert is: “someone who avoids all the small mistakes while committing a grand blunder.” So, before I get down to the nitty-gritty of a new assignment, I like to place everything in a grand array. I always make mistakes in my assignments, but this way I can hope they’ll all be small mistakes.

My favorite method of approaching the Big Picture is first to break down the question into three parts: Self, Other, and Context. In this column, I’ll start with Self — that is, the Big Picture of yourself.

Focusing on myself, I then ask three three questions I learned from the famous family therapist, Virginia Satir:

– How do I happen to be here? (Past)

– How do I feel about being here? (Present)

– What would I like to have happen? (Future)

How do I happen to be here?

Here are some Big Picture questions that make an enormous difference in how I approach an assignment.

If it’s the first assignment with this client, how did I make the connection? Was it through a third party, or through a direct contact by the client?

If it’s a repeat, what impressions did I leave the previous times I was here? Did I leave friends, or enemies? Are my old contacts still viable? What assumptions am I carrying over from the previous assignments?

Did I get the contract I wanted, or did I have to make some concessions that might come back to haunt me?

How do I feel about being here?

Am I here reluctantly? Do I have some reservations, or forebodings, about this assignment?

Am I eager to be here? Am I looking forward to the task that I’ve agreed to do?

Am I puzzled about what’s expected of me, or is the assignment clear? How sure am I of the assignment?

How sure am I of myself — of my ability to provide value for value received?

However I’m feeling, is this the right mood for succeeding in this job? If not, what steps will I have to take to get in the right mood?

What would I like to have happen?

Why did I take this assignment? For the money? The experience? The challenge? The possibility of a future reference? If I don’t have my mission in mind whenever I choose a course of action, the client may be happy with my work, but I’ll come away with a hollow feeling.

What will success look like, to me? If I come away with a pile of money but a poor reference, will I be satisfied? How about an ecstatic client who’s enormously impressed by my repeating a solution I’ve done so often it bores me into a trance?

How long do I want to be here? If the client extends the project, will I be laughing or crying?

Using the Big Picture of Yourself

By using these three questions to assess my own state before I start an assignment, I’ve enormously increased my level of satisfaction. I use them to survey my state before I agree to any contract, new or renewed. On one occasion, for instance, I found I was about to renew a long-standing contract with a nice 15% increase in my daily fee. When I checked my feeling, however, I realized that I had negotiated for the wrong thing. Much of the time on the old contract, I felt that I was doing a fine job in solving the wrong problem, and I don’t find this very satisfying. I didn’t mind the extra 15%, but what I really wanted was more involvement in defining my own assignments.

Armed with improved self-knowledge, I halted the negotiation process and asked for more leeway, which the client was only too happy to grant. I was prepared to sacrifice at least some of the 15% increase, but the client insisted that I take it. He commented, “Now that you’ll be helping do the right things, rather than just doing things right, you’ll be worth at least that much more to us.”

Self-assessment doesn’t always pay off this directly. On another renewal, early in my career, my attempt to get more leeway in defining my work led to an irreconcilable difference between me and my client. This client knew — or thought he did — exactly what his problems were, yet I felt his poor problem definition limited my ability to be successful in my terms.

At that time in my life, what I wanted most was experience with certain types of problems and a few outstanding references. On my first assignment with this client, I had helped solve a problem that didn’t vaguely resemble what I really wanted to work on. And, though the solution was innovative and successful, it didn’t really help the client with his true problem — since he was working on the wrong problem to begin with. He attributed his lack of satisfaction to some unspecified shortcoming in my work, and was reluctant to give me a sterling reference.

And, of course, he was right. The shortcoming in my work was my failure to assess the Big Picture — both his and mine — before I took the assignment. As we negotiated for a follow-on, the three questions show me that the extra money he offered wasn’t adequate to overcome my bad feelings about working with him again. Negotiations broke down, but at least I didn’t waste another six months of my life struggling for something I didn’t really want.

It took me a few weeks to get a new assignment, and that cost me a few bucks. The cost is long forgotten, but I still savor the memory of my satisfaction with the new assignment — what I learned, what I earned, and how it put my professional life back on my own track.

Questions and answers

Q: It’s all very nice to say that I ought to be centered in myself before I make big decisions, but whenever I get into some sort of negotiation, I lose track of myself, what I want, and what’s good for me. What do you suggest?

A: This is too big a question to answer entirely, but the first part is easy. When you first notice that you’re starting to lose yourself, STOP whatever you’re doing. Then concentrate on how you’re breathing, and switch to smooth, regular breathing.

Q: I’ve tried the breathing thing, and sometimes it works. But sometimes it doesn’t, like when another person is blasting at me in a loud voice. What should I do?

A: If you can’t get your breathing under control, find a way to leave the situation. If you wish to continue, come back later. If you find yourself unable to leave, then that’s a sure sign you must leave, now, and not come back. This is not the situation for you.