Consulting skills 3 – Book review: Humble Consulting by Edgar h Schein

I am often asked which books I recommend on consulting skills. I’m asked both by people contemplating a freelance consultancy career and increasingly by people who have adopted an internal consultant role supporting a change management programme. Having started in a management consultancy (now Deloitte) in 1987, been an independent consultant for over 20 years and running training workshops on consulting skills I have read more than my fair share of consulting books. But I thought I would review just three books on consulting – an introductory book on the process of consulting, a more advanced book on consultancy processes and one that focuses on the helping relationship (this one which will be of particular value to coaches and counsellors). It’s interesting to reflect on how similar the process is for consultancy services to other professional services – whether legal, accountancy or surveying services. So here is the third review: Consulting skills 3 – Book review: Humble Consulting by Edgar H Schein. The subtitle of which is “How to provide real help faster”.


This 2016 short book (200 pages) takes a different perspective on consulting – focusing more on the helping relationship than the traditional consulting process. It will therefore resonate with coaches and counsellors. Maybe I like this author’s work as he is a social psychologist or maybe because his views resonate so much with my work in organizational culture change as a Non-Executive Director. Or perhaps it is because he expertly articulates the different type of client relationship that is needed. Professional service firms will be interested to know that he talks a lot about “organisational silos” and how to improve cross-organisation collaboration.

The book contains 25 case studies which are compelling consulting stories covering an array of industries (e.g. health, technology, energy, banking, education, chemicals) and situations (e.g. culture change, organisational development, new systems, management development). The author has been bold enough to include numerous stories about consulting “failures” and share the lessons he learned.

His over-riding messages appears to be to step out of the role of expert and focus on forming a strong relationship where you can work on issues together – in incremental steps rather than an overall consultancy report and grand plan. The book is probably more suitable for senior and experienced consultants working with boards on messy, complex organisational culture and people issues rather than technical or functional issues.

Introduction – a new model of consulting

Explaining his background in human relations training and his original work on evolving a model of process consulting he states that the client must be involved in working out what is wrong (co-creating). He quickly rejects the “diagnose and then telling of recommendations” approach used by doctors or experts.

He highlights the importance of conversations BEFORE the consulting project starts – effectively during the sales process (a similar approach to that advocated in insight selling). As a trainee counsellor, I liked his early recognition of the importance of the client-consultant relationship where he refers to the work of Weick and Sutcliffe, Erving Goffman, Madanes and Bushe and Marshak (dialogic organization development): “The complex problems of today are not technical ones that can be solved with specific tools”. He frames his solutions as “spirit of inquiry” and “adaptive moves”.

“Building a relationship that enables the client to “learn how to learn” was then and becomes now more than ever one of the crucial goals of Humble Consulting”.

Amongst the first case studies is his membership of a group focused on organizational culture and the reflection that being an expert only works for simple, bounded problems. Getting into a relationship with the client that would enable them to figure out together what was wrong and how to fix it failed if the problem was complex, culturally multi-faceted and constantly changing.

He talks about personalising situations by sharing food and drink – often at his or his clients’ homes. And the power of that simple question: “Can you give me an example?”, to focus on behaviours rather than culture. He talks a lot about the value of curiosity.  I also liked that he modestly reports that help can happen fast – as the result of a simple observation or insightful question.

He reflects on why problems are messier these days: technical fields are more complex, groups are occupationally diverse, diversity makes goal congruence more difficult, there isn’t enough time, problems/environments are not stable and the concept of client changes. “We are dealing with new complex problems, new kinds of client systems and a new sense of urgency”.

He articulates his new model as “you are committed to being helpful, bring a great deal of honest curiosity and have the right caring attitude, a willingness to find out what is really on the client’s mind”.

What is new in Humble Consulting?

In chapter two he elaborates on the new kind of personal relationship needed with the client. His assertion that it is hard to ask for help in our culture could be countered with the excellent advice of Heidi Grant in her book “Reinforcements – how to get people to help you”.

But I like that he says we have to overcome “professional distance” to develop a more personal, trusting and open relationship with clients. It just feels more authentic and congruent. He argues consulting needs a new attitude of humility, a commitment to helping and curiosity. His 3Cs are commitment, caring and curiosity.

He also remarks that there needs to be new listening  and responding skills.  He talks about two kinds of empathy:

  • Empathy one – listen for and be curious about the actual situation the client is describing
  • Empathy two – listen for and be curious about what is really bothering the speaker

“The consultant’s primary purpose is to enable the client to figure out and make sense of what is really worrying her, what is really on her mind”. The consultant has to become a partner and helper. Consultant behaviour requires being open, authentic and innovative in the relationship with more improvisation. He summarises these thoughts in 10 working propositions:

  1. Locate the real problem
  2. This requires open and trusting communication
  3. This needs a Level Two personal working relationship (see below)
  4. This requires personalization of the relationship
  5. This requires humble inquiry – more personal questions, thoughts or feelings
  6. The intention to build a Level Two relationship must be communicated in the initial contact
  7. They must engage in a joint dialogic process
  8. Careful review to determine whether there are several things bothering the client
  9. To decide where action is needed, consultant and client must jointly decide on priorities
  10. If the problem is complex and messy, client and consultant must figure out a feasible adaptive move (whilst understanding the consequences)

This focus on the next adaptive move feels similar to the Design Thinking approach – small adjustments rather than a grand plan. The author asserts that Humble Consulting will be the next leadership skill.

Need for a trusting and open level two relationship

This chapter starts with some cultural analysis and an overview of four broad types of relationship. “A relationship is a set of mutual expectations about each other’s future behaviour based on past interactions with one another”.

Level Minus One – Negative hostile relationship, exploitation

Level One – Acknowledgement, civility, transactional and professional role relations

Level Two – Recognition as a unique person

Level Three – Close friendships, love and intimacy

Level One relationships – “One of the main problems in day-to-day interactions with professionals is that they enjoy a special status associated with their education, knowledge, skill and licences to perform special helping services with that status goes the privilege that they can be as personal as their helping role requires, but the relationship is not symmetric”. The author argues that this type of relationship encourages impersonality and politeness.

Level Two relationships – This is where there is more personalization. “People who we know as individuals, co-workers, clients, bosses or subordinates who we have gotten to know personally but not intimately through common work or educational experiences and casual friendships. This kind of relationship implies a deeper level of trust and openness in terms of:

  1. Making and honouring commitments and promises to each other
  2. Agreeing not to undermine each other or harm wat we are endeavouring to do
  3. Agreeing not to lie to each other or withhold information relevant to our task”

 The author differentiates between whether we personalise around the presenting problem or around the manner in which the client is presenting it and the process the client is proposing – content versus process.

He argues that part of the personalization process of Level Two relationships is to mutually discover the boundaries of personalization as each party calibrates how the other responds to a change in openness and trust.

There’s a telling case study where the lesson was “being a scientist gathering data is not the same thing as being a helper”. And another relating to process help where consultants use their ignorance strategically and tactically by identifying an issue that may or may not be an issue and timing a question carefully when the group can observe the phenomenon for itself and make its own judgement about what to do differently. He advocates observing behaviour but not judging it. He argues that groups can solve their own problems quickly once a problem was clearly identified.

I loved the quote “I had forgotten that smart people don’t do stupid things for no reason, so one must locate why they are doing something that looks stupid from our point of view but may make sense from their point of view”.

 Humble Consulting begins with the first conversation

“Building a relationship is a process that begins in the initial contact that the helper has with the client”.

 I like this concept a lot and it supports other research findings in the area of insight selling.  He advocates being immediately helpful to the client by starting a conversation rather than contracting, scouting or diagnosing. He returns to the ideas of commitment, curiosity and caring. And rather than researching clients in advance he says “I want to focus on what the client tells me personally in the here and now”.

 There’s an interesting exploration of self-oriented listening, content-empathetic listening and person-empathetic listening. As well as options for responding – authenticity and asking open ended questions to which you truly do not know the answer. He talks about diagnostic inquiry (conceptual, emotional and behavioural), circular questions (asking how others might be thinking and feeling) and process questions.

Suggestive enquiry forces new content into the story and process-oriented enquiry looks at the ways things happen now and how they might happen in the future.

Another case study shows a great example of getting a group to work better together by sharing a meal and a check-in process where they revealed why they belonged and are committed to the organisation.

Personalization: Enhancing the level two relationship

“Personalization is telling one another a bit of our story of who we really are, where we have come from and where we are going”.

 Personalisation opens up communication so you can find out what is really worrying people. There’s another great story where tutors revealed more about themselves and students then felt more comfortable asking questions generally. He adds “the more formal work of learning is facilitated by the informality of a more personal classroom and that the mechanism for this is the psychological safety that the student experiences”. There’s a further great illustration where students were encouraged to ask questions about each other’s cultures. And there are some great insights from an executive coaching story.

The Humble Consulting focus on process

He argues that to keep a Level Two relationship alive you must avoid content seduction. “Once you have a sense of what the client is after you and the client can explore adaptive moves together and, in that context, you can make process suggestions”.

There’s another example where asking innocent questions had led to a problem solution: “Help can come in brief, innocent interventions that help clients to approach dilemmas from a new angle”.

He is generous with his wisdom: “the biggest lesson I learned is that clients often do not think through what is involved in the changes they desire – what else in the culture would have to change to make their desired change”.

He also argues that using groups is more effective than individual interviews to decipher culture. He stresses the importance of facilitating problem-solving rather than trying to do it yourself as a consultant:

  1. Reformulate the problem
  2. Rethink what the client’s own role should be
  3. Rethink what the consultant should do

New kinds of adaptive moves

“The alternative to diagnose, analyse and recommend model is to work with the client on an adaptive move that will simultaneously reveal some diagnostic information and constitute an initial intervention”. 

Book contents

  1. I am the consultant and I don’t know what to do
  2. What is new in Humble Consulting
  3. The need for a trusting and open level two relationship
  4. Humble Consulting begins with the first conversation
  5. Personalization: Enhancing the level two relationship
  6. The Humble Consulting focus on process
  7. The new kinds of adaptive move

A similar book – which I recommend to executive coaches is Helping people change: Coaching with compassion for lifelong learning and growth” by Richard Boyatzis, Melvin Smith and Ellen Van Oosten

Recommended books on change management:

Change management – Change Catalyst book review by Kim Tasso September 2018

Change management book – Switch (Chip & Dan Heath) ( September 2018

Book review: Neuroscience for organizational change by Hilary Scarlett ( May 2020

change management and organisational change ( January 2017

Your personal transition – Endings, neutral zone and new beginnings ( June 2020