“Flux” Meets “Process Consultation”

A couple nights ago, I was having a hard time getting settled and drifting off to sleep. This wasn’t unusual, as it often takes some time for my brain to calm down. So I picked up a book from grad school – “Process Consultation Revisited” by organization development guru Ed Schein. It’s a book you’ve really got to be in the mood for (or so I thought). Surprise! It drew me back so much that I had to turn off YouTube in the background and focus 100% on the text. (Having multiple things playing in the background, both literally and figuratively, is a big reason I can’t get settled, but that’s a different post). I reconnected with multiple passages throughout the book that were underlined or marked with post-it notes. I apparently really enjoyed it, but I’ve forgotten most of the points, so I need a refresher.

Even though I intended for this to be night-time reading, I think I will add this to my reading list. Why? I’m taking some time to get intentional about what I want my career to look like. It’s a deeply introspective process and not a job search – yet. In grad school, I was curious about the path to becoming an industrial-organizational (I/O) psychologist. Perhaps, after gaining the necessary credentials, I would like to become a consultant and coach. Process Consultation, if not seminal, is still considered required reading for anyone going into a helping profession, primarily consulting.

“Process consultation is a philosophy about and attitude toward the process of helping individuals, groups, organizations, and communities.”

(Schein, 1999, p. 1)

There are a lot of books on consulting. What’s different about this text is that it focuses more on the psychological and social dynamics in the relationship between the client and the consultant than the solution itself. 

“The ultimate goal of process consultation, then, is the establishment of an effective helping relationship.”

(Schein, 1999, p. 1)

I can’t help you unless I know how to help you. I need to know what can get in the way of your allowing me to help you. The book reminds readers that there aren’t any quick fixes; it’s really about building relationships. Schein continues to drive home that process consultation, or “PC,” is valid for more than just consultants; therapists, parents, and friends could all benefit from focusing on the how as much as the why. 

“The emphasis is on “process” because I believe that how things are done between people and in groups is as – or more important than – what is done. The how, or the “process,” usually communicates more clearly what we really mean than does the content of what we say.”

(Schein, 1999, p. 3)

Think about the last time you asked someone for help. Does it matter whether they helped you graciously or begrudgingly? In terms of solving the immediate problem, no. But Covey discusses the consequences of this in Habit 3: Put First Things First when he says:

“While you can think in terms of efficiency in dealing with time, a principle-centered person thinks in terms of effectiveness in dealing with people.”

(Covey, 2013, p. 170)

And I’d add that to be effective with people, you have to put in the work to cultivate the relationship. We can’t approach conversations with people the same way we approach other tasks on our to-do lists. Sure, you can block off 30 minutes on your calendar to read emails, but blocking off 30 minutes to talk to your spouse won’t be the same. There’s no guarantee that whatever you tell your spouse will be resolved in 30 minutes. This relationship is valuable to you, so you could be efficient, knocking out the conversation in 15 minutes, but what does that do for the quality of the relationship? Not much. It might actually be counterproductive.

One of the things I like about this text is the focus on consultants actually helping. It’s not a word I hear a lot in organizations. There’s a lot of “efficient and effective” and “optimization” and “high-performance.” To me, those are at best subjective and at worst bullshit. Understandably, people don’t see consultants as helpful. Consultants come in shiny. They get access to leaders with ease and get to use our departments as sandboxes. Often, without appropriate history or socio-organizational context, they make recommendations that likely were designed to prove a point from an executive in the first place. Then, the consultants leave, and you’re left to implement the plan you probably didn’t have input on. That doesn’t feel like help. 

If I am to be a consultant, I want to help. I know you can’t please everyone, and not everyone will know my intentions or feel like I helped. But I want to help rather than consult. 

Schein thinks being helpful is essential, too. It’s the first principle in his text. 

“Principle 1: Always Try to Be Helpful” (Schein, 1999, p. 6)

Consultation is providing help. Obviously, therefore, if I don’t intend to be helpful and work at it, I am unlikely to be successful in creating a helping relationship. Therefore, if possible, every interaction should be perceived as helpful.

“Wishful thinking, stereotypes, projections, expectations, prior plans, and all other forces that are based on past conceptions or psychological needs rather than here-and-now data tend to get in the way of making a wise choice of how best to help.”

(Schein, 1999, p. 6)

Then there’s the second principle. 

“Principle 2: Always Stay in Touch with the Current Reality

I cannot be helpful if I do not know the realities of what is going on within me and within the client system; therefore, every contact with anyone in the client systems should provide diagnostic information to both the client and to me about the here-and-now state of the client system and the relationship between the client and me.”

(Schein, 1999, p. 6)

You have to be in the right headspace to help someone else. But what does the right headspace look like? It means that you have an intention to observe and discover rather than diagnose and problem-solve. I think these two concepts are related, but one approaches the helping conversation humbly and with a sensitive awareness, understanding that the consultant needs to create space between his thoughts and emotions to be as in the moment as possible. I wouldn’t even say that consultant needs to be “objective” because context matters so much. There may not be a clear choice right away as to what’s right and what’s wrong. You have to be knee-deep in it to really make the right decisions. 

Imagine you’ve just learned that an abnormal test result indicates that you have a severe illness that will require a long, painful, and expensive treatment. Objectively speaking, the doctor could follow the prescribed course of action and being the treatment. But if the stakes are high, do you want your doctor to just use one decision point? No! You want to know the normal range for the enzyme being tested. If the other ranges are within a common variance, do you need to start the treatment? If your numbers are really off the wall, maybe you want to be tested again – just to be sure it wasn’t a fluke. And before you proceed with what seems to be the expected course of action, are there behavioral changes you can make that might improve the condition?

Admittedly, it is easier to just take the doctor’s word for it and accept that because they’re the expert, they’re probably right. And that’s not a flawed assumption considering the amount of training and education they had to become a doctor. In fact, sometimes taking orders is how you stay alive. But in this situation, you give away all of your power to the doctor. And if it turns out the doctor is wrong, you are now angry with yourself and resentful toward the doctor, but you turned over the power to her in the first place. 

This example and variations of it align with the first of three models Schein describes in PC. Model 1 – The Purchase-of-Information or Expertise Model: Selling and Telling. I’ll cover the three models in more detail in a future post.

But the critical thing to drill down here is how to stay “in the moment.” 

In this moment, I am a collection of everything I’ve seen, felt, heard, thought, and done – consciously and subconsciously. 

In this moment, I see things in a very particular way, in a way I haven’t seemed them before because I haven’t experienced this moment before right now. 

“Reality is never still; it never stops. Reality is always new. There is never anything you experience in the moment that you have experienced before. It is always a new arising.”

(Tejaniya, 2019, p. 97)

So, if life is itself in flux, as I covered in my last post, and our mind, spirit, and consciousness are constantly in flux, how do you help someone “right now”? Isn’t it possible that whatever solution you develop now might not work tomorrow? And if that’s true, wouldn’t you be in a constant state of coming up with solutions because the conditions continue to change? And if everything is constantly changing, do you even need to come up with solutions? 

I guess not. If you’re in the present moment, you solve for the present moment. But that feels like a lot of problem-solving, and I don’t want life to feel like a big problem to figure out. I feel that way a lot, and the idea of not having answers – or continually developing solutions – feels like it never stops. So, I think the framework I need to establish is that life is not a puzzle or problem. It is an experience to be aware of, moment-by-moment. 

I think it’s fitting to close with a paragraph from one of my favorite books: 

“If you no longer want to create pain for your help and others, if you no longer want to add to the residue of past pain that still lives on in you, then don’t create any more time, or at least no more than is necessary to deal with the practical aspects of your life. How to stop creating time? Realize deeply that the present moment is all you ever have. Make the Now the primary focus of your life. Whereas before you dwelt in time and paid brief visits to the Now, have your dwelling place the Now and pay brief visits to past and future when required to deal with the practical aspects of your life situation. Always say “yes” to the present moment. What could be more futile, more insane, than to create inner resistance to something that already is? What could be more insane than to oppose life itself, which is not and always now? Surrender to what is. Say “yes” to life – and see how life suddenly starts working for you rather than against you.”  

(Tolle, 1999, p. 34)

Reference List

Covey, Stephen. (2013). The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful lessons in personal change.

Schein, Ed. (1999). Process Consultation Revisited: Building the helping relationship.

Tejaniya, Sayadaw. (2019). Relax and Be Aware: Mindfulness meditations for clarity, confidence, and wisdom.

Tolle, Eckhart. (1999). The Power of Now: A guide to spiritual enlightenment.

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