In my last “Tips for High-Impact Teamwork” article last month, I addressed the social imbalance in helping relationships because Schein has highlighted that “…the essence of teamwork is the development and maintenance of reciprocal helping relationships.” His writings emphasize that the potential giver of help should ask questions to learn more about the need for help and to move toward level setting the inherent imbalance in the relationship between the giver and receiver. Since the method of asking questions or inquiring is the fundamental step in beginning to ameliorate the status differential in a helping relationship, it is crucial that all team members fully understand the inquiry process. In this article, I want to explore the types of inquiry that can be utilized by the giver of help.
Schein organizes the forms of inquiry into four categories: pure inquiry, diagnostic inquiry, confrontational inquiry and process inquiry.
Pure inquiry is exactly as it sounds. The giver asks non-leading or non-directive questions that they do not know the answer to in order to learn more about the need, case, dilemma or other situation that has created the opportunity for help. In addition to helping the giver learn, this approach enhances the receiver’s status, augments the receiver’s confidence and helps create a safe space for the receiver to share any information, feelings or anxiety they may have about this situation. Representative pure inquiry utterances include, “Say more,” “Is there anything else?” and “Can you provide examples?”. At this point, the giver is mostly listening, and affirmative verbal and non-verbal cues can be very productive (e.g., nodding in understanding, saying “yes” or “I see,” and taking notes).
Once the giver feels that they have a good understanding of the situation, they can consider moving to the next form of inquiry: diagnostic inquiry. When the giver is using this form of inquiry, they shift from solely learning passively from the receiver to beginning to influence the direction of the conversation and the receiver’s thinking process. For example, instead of letting the receiver chose what to discuss, the giver may deliberately begin to focus on topics or issues that the receiver has not mentioned or explored. The purpose of these questions is to help the receiver become more self-aware and see other potential perspectives or factors that they may not have seen before.
Redirection can include:
- Inquiries about the receiver’s feelings and reactions (“How did that make you feel?” or “How did you react when she said that?”;
- Causes and motives to the situation (“How did you get to this point in the relationship?” or “What led you to do that?”);
- Prior actions that were taken or contemplated (“What have you tried so far?” or “What are you considering as next steps at this point?”), and
- Systemic or organizational factors that may be influencing the situation (“What would your colleagues think if you took that action?” or “Is this approach consistent with your department’s culture?”).
Questions used in diagnostic inquiry should not be a subtle attempt to imply a solution. They are still just questions without hidden meanings. Nonetheless, since the receiver may read meaning into the questions and incorrectly assume or infer that the questions are leading to a solution, it is essential that the giver assess how open the receiver is to accepting feedback before starting to use diagnostic questions. If the giver senses that they have not yet established enough trust or that the receiver is reluctant to accept input, it is best to continue in the pure inquiry mode or very gently and slowly ease into the diagnostic inquiry approach.
Once the giver of help senses that the receiver is ready to receive the giver’s ideas, advice or suggestions, then the helping process can move into the form of inquiry that Schein refers to as “confrontational inquiry.” Shein uses this term because, “… it introduces into the conversation ideas that bear on the actual content of the [receiver’s] presented problem but may not have been thought of by the [receiver of the help].” Personally, I do not like this term because the conversation will not necessarily become confrontational. Instead, I prefer to think of this form of inquiry as “advising inquiry” since I am usually asked to help in my role as a team coach, and “offering advice” has a relatively positive connotation in this context. Having said that, in the spirit of transparency and curiosity, I like mentioning this planned shift in my questions and intentionally confirming that the receiver is at a place where they are ready to listen openly to my suggestions or advice.
During confrontational or advising inquiry, the helper is explicitly interjecting their own thoughts, ideas, and suggestions into the conversation. Whereas with diagnostic inquiry, the helper asked questions based on the receiver’s own conceptual and emotional perspectives of the situation, in confrontational or advising inquiry the helper introduces their own thoughts, ideas, hypotheses, options and other perspectives.
At this point the helper is similar to an expert or consultant whose perspective is valued and actively being sought. This form of inquiry can only be used if the power differential between the giver and receiver has been addressed and there is enough equity and trust between the giver and receiver. Depending on the previous interactions between the individuals and the setting, this may not actually take very long. I have found that many people very quickly trust me when I am in my physician or team coach role, and I generally trust new contacts who I need help from relatively quickly, as well. (Schein thinks confrontational inquiry is similar to the role of a doctor, but I disagree. Not only is this term too physician-centric, I think a successful healthcare professional must use all of the forms of inquiry.)
The last form of inquiry in Schein’s model is process-oriented inquiry. It is a shift from the situation or case that generated the helping relationship to the here-and-now conversation between the giver and receiver themselves. It can be used at any time during the discussion but is probably best implemented once the giver has a reasonably good understanding of the request for help. Potential questions include, “During this conversation, I have been using a mutual learning approach to my questions. Is it helpful to see how I frame questions using this approach?” and “How would you compare the way our discussion is going now with the one you experienced in the situation we have been discussing?” and “Are my questions helping you see the situation from other perspectives?” There are several reasons to use this form of inquiry. It can be a good way to assess how much trust the receiver has for the giver of help. Since it forces an assessment of the current conversation, it can also be a way of analyzing the current interaction in case that would be helpful to the situation.
We began this exploration of Schein’s forms of inquiry by pointing out that the receiver of help is relatively one-down compared to the potential giver of the help. Starting to help through pure inquiry is an effective way to level-set that imbalance. The risk of exacerbating the imbalance or getting resistance from the receiver increases as we transition from pure inquiry through diagnostic to advising and process-oriented inquiry. Therefore, the transitions should be done intentionally. As much as possible, the shift should be linked to something the receiver says during the conversation. Ultimately, the decision of which form of inquiry to use is a judgment call based on the prior interactions between the giver and receiver, the specifics of the situation that has created the helping relationship, and the giver’s perception of the level of imbalance within the giver-receiver relationship. As deciding when to make these transitions is challenging, mistakes are going to occur. When they do, it is best for the giver to acknowledge them straightaway, ask for forgiveness, and use the mistake as a learning opportunity that can be useful in the helping relationship.
I hope that this series of articles on how to understand better the helping relationship within a team has been useful. I recommend reading Schein’s excellent and important publications on humble inquiry, and I have included a few of his books in the references below.
I hope that over the next month you have time to rest during the holidays and New Year, be with family and friends, and rejuvenate for the important work that you are doing in school and/or in your job.
Schein EH. Helping: How to Offer, Give and Receive Help. Berrett-Koehler, 2011.
Schein EH and Schein PA. Humble Inquiry, Second Edition: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of
Telling. Berrett-Koehler, 2021.