On helping – the art of humble inquiry

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Having made the case that it is most appropriate to start out as a helper in the role of process consultant (the what and the why), Schein goes into humble inquiry – as the ‘how’ of being a process consultant.

Humble inquiry helps to do three key things – firstly, equalise the relationship by making what the client knows become all important; secondly, shows that as the helper you are attentive and interested in the client’s situation; and finally, it helps get more information and remove some of the ambiguity and unknowns from the situation so that as the helper you have more of an idea of what to do next.

Schein distinguishes and describes a number of types of inquiry that make up humble inquiry.  I actually touched on these when I first blogged about insights into research from Schein’s work last summer, although in his book the distinctions are slightly different and he illustrates them in more depth than the references I looked at before.

First on the list is pure inquiry.  Pure inquiry encourages the client to explain the situation/problem as they see it in their own terms with as little shaping as possible from the helper.  Sometimes all it takes is for the helper to be silent and attentive, but mainly the questions are prompts “tell me more…”.  This is the least invasive type of inquiry and keeps the client very much in their comfort zone – focussing in on the bits of the story that they want to.  If anything the helper may lead the client to go from the abstract and generic (“I am hopeless at my job”) to get more description and examples but the key is always that it is the client’s stories and the way they want to explain them that needs to be brought forth.  Pure inquiry leads to a point where the client’s view point is fully revealed.

The second type of inquiry is diagnostic inquiry.  This is a bit more ‘invasive’ in that it prompts the client to home in on particular aspects of their story – perhaps elements that they themselves did not fully elucidate.  Because the helper is shaping where attention is being shifted to they are exerting more power and control.  Schein highlights four different types of this direction-focusing:

  • focus in on feelings and emotions – how did that make you feel?
  • focus in on causes and motives – why did it happen that way?  why did you choose to do that?
  • focus in on actions taken or contemplated – what have you tried to do so far? what might you do?
  • focus in on ‘systemic’ issues (by which Schein means the human element) – how do you think x will react to that?

Then there is confrontational inquiry.  Here the helper gives more of their own views, ideas and suggestions which is a slight shift into expert or doctor role so can only be done when there is enough trust.  This is much more powerful type of inquiry.  Note the ideas are stilled framed as questions – “Did you think about doing x?” (instead of ‘I would do x’).

And finally there is process-oriented inquiry.  This brings into focus the dynamic of the here and now relationship to check out how the helping relationship is working out.

So as the latter types of inquiry are more invasive than the earlier ones and involve the helper exerting more power and control, the key seems to be understanding when to move between the different types of inquiry.  The key is to work with body language and demeanour and to observe as well as listen – and equally be doing self-inquiry at the same time about your own levels of comfort etc.  A lot will depend too on the history of the relationship and the time available.

There are two other criteria that Schein brings into the mix – constructive opportunism and situational propriety.  Constructive opportunism is about seizing an appropriate moment to shift attention according to something the client has said.  There is an element of risk in this but if the moment is not taken all the helper does is ask questions.  Situational propriety is pretty much all about the context – there are no fixed rules but sensitivity to context is all important.

Whilst I can read all Schein’s text and nod my head and agree to the ‘theory’ of humble inquiry, it seems difficult to think about enacting it in the moment – not to get trapped in the ‘habits’ of responding that I have formed over the years.  So for this week, I think I need to observe exactly what I do and how I behave in the moment of helping – I need the self awareness in order to then move ahead with the change.


Schein, E.H., 2009. Helping: how to offer, give and receive help First ed., San Francisco, CA: Berret-Koehler Publishers

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