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Process Consulting

Process consulting is a model of consultation based on mutual “helping relationship” propounded by Edgar Schein. It all started as a practice during the late twentieth century as a consulting work in which the consultant works ‘with’ the client and not ‘for’ the client. This constitutes the fundamental philosophy of process consulting. In process consultation there is no one management expert who comes up with an off-the-shelf solution for the client, rather the consultant and the client indulges into a participatory process from diagnostics to implementation in finding out a solution that specifically applies to the said client system organization. The key aspects of mutual participation and specificity makes the process consultant methodology a powerful management consultancy tool.

Though process consulting is a widely practiced vertical within the domain of organizational development, it is not easy to empirically measure its effectiveness. Possibly because, process consulting is usually an application on group processes and since a group undergoes through a myriad of processes like coping with ambiguity, dealing with authority issues, processes related to gender diversity and so on, it is difficult to attribute the ultimate result to one particular process. Also, particularly in small groups, process consulting goes hand in hand with other parallel group level interventions and thus the efficacy of process consulting alone is difficult to single out.

The key to process consultation is relationship building. In the words of Edgar Schein “The decisive factor as to whether or not help will occur in human situations involving personality, group dynamics and culture is the relationship between the helper and the person, group or organization that needs help.” Thus, in a way, mutuality of help as experienced between the client and the consultant, right from the entry stage up till the implementation stage is the key to the success of process consultation methodology. Whatever action, step, the consultant takes, becomes an intervention and the merit of that intervention lies in the extent to which such intervention is seen as “helpful” for the client.

As Edgar Schein says in his own words, adhering to the following principles might be helpful:

  1. Always try to be careful. Obviously, if I have no intention of being helpful and hardworking at it, it is unlike to lead to a helping relationship. I have found in all human relationships that the intention to be helpful is the best guarantee of a relationship that is rewarding and leads to mutual learning.
  2. Always stay in touch with the current reality. I cannot be helpful if I cannot decipher what is going on in myself, in the situation, and in the client.
  3. Access your ignorance. The only way I can discover my own inner reality is to learn to distinguish what I know from what I assume I know, from what I truly do not know. And I have learned from experience that it is generally most helpful to work on those areas where I truly do not know. Accessing is the key, in the sense that I have learned that to overcome expectations and assumptions I must make an effort to locate within myself what I really do not know and should be asking about. It is like scanning my own inner database and gaining access to empty compartments. If I truly do not know the answer I am more likely to sound congruent and sincere when I ask about it.
  4. Everything you do is an intervention. Just as every interaction reveals diagnostic information, so does every interaction have consequences both for the client and me. I therefore have to own everything I do and assess the consequences to be sure that they fit my goals of creating a helping relationship.
  5. It is the client who owns the problem and the solution. My job is to create a relationship in which the client can get help. It is not my job to take the client’s problems onto my own shoulders, nor is it my job to offer advice and solutions in a situation that I do not live in myself.
  6. Go with the flow. Inasmuch as I do not know the client’s reality, I must respect as much as possible the natural flow in that reality and not impose my own sense of flow on an unknown situation. Once the relationship reaches a certain level of trust, and once the client and helper have a shared set of insights into what is going on, flow itself becomes a shared process.
  7. Timing is crucial. Over and over I have learned that the introduction of my perspective, the asking of a clarifying question, the suggestion of alternatives, or whatever else I want to introduce from my own point of view has to be tined to those moments when the client’s attention is available. The sane remark uttered at two different tines can have completely different results.
  8. Be constructively opportunistic with confrontive interventions. When the client signals a moment of openness, a moment when his or her attention to a new input appears to be available, I find I seize those moments and try to make the most of them. In listening for those moments, I find it most important to look for areas in which I can build on the client’s strengths and positive motivations. Those moments also occur when the client has revealed some data signifying readiness to pay attention to a new point of view.
  9. Everything is a source of data; errors are inevitable-learn from them. No matter how well I observe the previous principles I will say and do things that produce unexpected and undesirable reactions in the client. I must learn from them and at all costs avoid defensiveness, shame, or guilt, I can never know enough of the client’s really to avoid errors, but each error produces reactions from which I can learn a great deal about my own and the client’s reality.
  10. When in doubt share the problem. Inevitably, there will be times in the relationship when I run out of gas, don’t know what to do next, feel frustrated, and in other ways get paralyzed. In situations like this, I found that the most helpful thing I could do was to share my “problem” with the client. Why should I assume that I always know what to do next? Inasmuch as it is the client’s problem and reality we are dealing with, it is entirely appropriate for me to involve the client in my own efforts to be helpful. (Process Consultation Revisited. Building the Helping Relationship Edgar H. Schein)
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