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Wow! That's what I kept thinking as I read this new book. Ed Schein is one of the greats in my field. I reference his earlier work on a regular basis to help me understand organizational culture. Now he has written a book that makes explicit many of the underlying issues of not only consulting but of leadership. If you agree that leadership is about offering, giving and receiving help, this book will help you understand the dynamics involved.
For example, when someone asks for help, he or she is "one-down"; meaning he has lost "face" by asking for help. The potential helper is required by social norms to respond in some way. If the helper ignores the request, the person who asked will have to gain face back by devaluing the potential helper in some way. If the potential helper jumps to giving the wrong kind of help, the client may stay "one-down" and seek to become equal by again devaluing the helper. In organizations this surfaces through disengaged employees.
We intuitively learn how to respond to requests and help. It is extremely helpful to read the explicit dynamics so you can choose to manage those dynamics more constructively. A helper is given power and that power can potentially be misused. For example, I often contract with organizations to help them create leadership programs. I also sell products that may be good matches for those programs. However they don't expect me to design that program around the products I sell. Nor do they expect me to direct my inquiry into what they want so that I get the answers that will make my products the logical fit. I am in the role of a helper and resource, not a salesman with a product to sell. Since I do sell some products, I have to carefully separate my two roles in order to maintain my integrity and the trust of the clients. Schein actually uses the metaphor of theater to explain the dynamics. When am I the audience, ready to listen to my clients and when am I the actor giving advice?
One of the most valuable parts of the book is the way he defines the conversation that follows a request for help. There are four categories of that:
Confrontational Inquiry, and
Process Oriented Inquiry.
Each form of inquiry has a purpose. For example, Pure Inquiry is designed to see if new information surfaces about what the client really wants with that request for help. He uses an example of a child coming to her parent for "help with my homework." Before you jump to the homework, you might ask your child, "tell me more or what's going on" to hear if it really is help with homework that she wants. She might just want your attention to talk about something that bothers her. When we jump to be the helper with all the homework answers, we miss the chance to explore what kind of help the child really wants.
Pure inquiry is what I use with a client when I am first contacted for help. I would move into diagnostic inquiry while I was trying to understand what they have now and why they want something different. Confrontational inquiry is where I begin to give them my ideas. If I jump to confrontational inquiry in the first conversation, I don't have an understanding of what they need, nor do I understand what I don't know. Instead I am asking questions that will lead them to see it "my way." Not very helpful to the client. The way we used to describe it in grad school is that to a hammer, everything is a nail.
Schein summarizes the book in this sentence: "Inquiry is as much an attitude as it is a specific behavior." If you feel you must be an all-knowing resource to your clients and colleagues, you might want to take the time to explore the dynamics that creates in terms of power and status. The whole idea of "face" is one that has not been explored so explicitly in terms of Western culture and yet it affects all of our relationships. Buy this book, read it and enjoy. I know I can do a better job today as a result of Dr. Schein's latest work.