Don’t assume you know what the other wants or needs. Helping through humble inquiry. By Edgar Schein

Communication is essential in a healthy organization. But all too often when we interact with people—especially those who report to us—we simply tell them what we think they need to know. This shuts them down. To generate bold new ideas, to avoid disastrous mistakes, to develop agility and flexibility, we need to practice Humble Inquiry. Ed Schein defines Humble Inquiry as “the fine art of drawing someone out, of asking questions to which you do not know the answer, of building a relationship based on curiosity and interest in the other person.” In this seminal work, Schein contrasts Humble Inquiry with other kinds of inquiry, shows the benefits Humble Inquiry provides in many different settings, and offers advice on overcoming the cultural, organizational, and psychological barriers that keep us from practicing it.

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Helping is an essential human pursuit; we do it at home with our partners, our children, our loved ones. We do it at everyday at work, with our team.

We seek out help too, although all too often it’s a practice that can also be difficult to perform and accept. And at times our earnest offers of help are begrudged and rebuffed…so why is it so difficult to provide or accept help and in what way can we make the whole process easier?

Corporate culture and organizational development guru Ed Schein analyzes the collective and psychological subtleties common to all types of helping relationships. In his book entitled “Helping” he explains why help is often not helpful, and shows what any would-be helpers must guarantee that their assistance is both received and valuable. He suggests the following stages of inquiring to enable genuine support.

Always begin with Humble Inquiry

Effective helping begins with readiness. By simply listening to the client’s story, using “humble inquiry” as Schein calls the process strategy at this stage, the client begins to feel like there is a better balance in the relationship just by being heard. That begins the development of trust.

“I don’t know the answer.”

“Please tell me more….”

Be aware not to fall into the diagnostic trap too early.

Experts are more comfortable with the kinds of questions that lead to solutions. Who was at the meeting? When did you meet? What did the other party
 say? How did the language in that meeting compare to prior email communications? Use of those kinds of diagnostic questions too early may impede the development of the relationship. The attorney is walking a tightrope here, because this also is the time when attorneys are hoping to gain a client. The quality of informed questions is an important factor in a client’s decision, and informed questions tend to be diagnostic.

“Why did you choose this way?”

“Have you thought of some other alternatives?”

Start with process inquiry and return to it often.

Schein uses process inquiry to describe the underlying process of relationship building and problem solving, not to focus on the substance of the problem. For example, the question, “How would you see a successful outcome?” at the conclusion of an initial consultation turns the focus to the client’s expectation of the process outcome. That question might uncover a discomfort with the unintended consequences of litigation, for example. Occasional questions during the engagement like, “How can we better communicate about the drafts?” or “How am I doing keeping you informed about the progress of the case?” turns the focus to the relationship, keeps it in balance as client input is sought, and continues to build trust.

According to Schein “Bad help means asking the wrong kind of questions.”

However, using the strategies above you can avoid giving the wrong type of help whether you are at work, with your children or your spouse. I have found this book to be fundamental not only on a professional level but a personal one too. I was very lucky as I fell upon this book when my mother was diagnosed with cancer. The book helped me ask the right question, assist, care and be present till the end.

I dedicate this blog to Saroj Bala; who taught me everything I know about helping.

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