A few years ago I wrote a white paper about facilitation skills. At that point I’d been delivering leadership training for a number of years and had developed a style which I characterised as adult (based on Transactional Analysis), coaching (see Whitmore) and from a basis of ‘Unconditional Positive Regard’ (Rogers). Although I’m still facilitating leadership development, I’m now spending much more of my time as a consultant ‘helping’ organisations through the cultural elements of change projects and working with executive teams. I’ve also immersed myself in Organisational Development and Positive Psychology related practices, coming across the ideas of the use of ‘self’ in consultancy and enabling people to develop their strengths (rather than working on their weaknesses). So I’m now beginning to adapt and refine my approach to suit these new situations.
Based on this I’ve again looked to some key texts to characterise my development and new approach. So I was really surprised when a name I knew well came to my attention. Edgar H Schein has been influential in the areas of career coaching and culture change and is a bit of a hero of mine. I now know he has also written very authoritatively on ‘helping’ and consulting approaches. Based on reading his books I now have a new language with which to describe how I now approach building relationships with my clients (for both leadership development and change consultancy).
Three kinds of helping roles
The 4 types of Inquiry
Schein states that the use of these types of inquiry at the right times are the key to building and maintaining the helping/consultancy relationship. These enable me to now explain how I use different types of questions in different situations.
1. Pure inquiry
The purpose of this is to build up the client’s status and confidence, creating a situation where they are safe to ask for help. It is also to find out as much about their situation as possible the client’s story must be fully revealed in a way that they begin to think about potential actions. I begin all consultant – client relationships using pure inquiry and continue with it as a default.
Tell me more…
How can I help?
What else can you tell me about xxx?
2. Diagnostic inquiry
Here the consultant will begin to influence the client’s mental processes by deliberately focussing on certain issues in 4 different ways; 1 feelings and reactions, 2 causes and motives, 3 actions taken or considered and 4 systemic (to elicit the context / system in which the actions occur). Often these types of questions are used unconsciously which means the consultant is unaware they are influencing the client. I will use these as consciously as possible to move the process forward.
3. Confrontational inquiry
Helper interjects taking more of a doctor or expert role and offering suggestions or options. The relationship here should be already built to an extent where it feels safe for the client feels trust and equity enabling valid communication.
Did that make you angry?
Have you thought of xxx?
Did it occur to you that…?
This type of inquiry can be extremely powerful, however it is also very direct and if used too soon, too much or at the wrong time, it can unbalance the helping relationship. I enjoy using confrontational inquiry and think it is an essential part of consulting, however I absolutely use it sparingly and with caution and only when I have already established a relationship with the client based on true rapport and trust!
4. Process-oriented inquiry
This shifts the focus from the content under discussion to the process of discussion itself.
What is happening here?
How do you think our conversation is going?
Are my questions helping you?
These types of questions again are useful occasionally to ensure that the consultancy process, including the relationship between client and consultant, is moving forward in a way which is helpful for the client.
So the helping roles and types of inquiry help me describe how I approach consultancy. They can also be applied by other consultants, whether external like me or in house consultants as HR / OD / L&D professionals often are. If you’d like to know more please e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org