Tag Archives: process consultation

Helper roles: Process consultant, expert, doctor


This is a continuation of my thoughts and notes on “helping” in the context of educational development (see here for my first blog post on this topic). I have been reading Schein’s “Helping: How to offer, give and receive help” and am finding it very relevant to my work (and beyond).

 In Chapter 3, Schein describes three helper roles that we can potentially adopt:

  • Expert resource who provides information or services
  • Doctor who diagnoses and prescribes (extension and enlargement of above)
  • Process consultant who focuses on building an equitable relationship and clarifies what kind of help is needed.

Though we often go between all three roles, we should begin any helping relationship in the role of process consultant. By engaging in humble inquiry, the process consultant establishes trust between the client (the word Schein uses for any individual who is receiving help) and herself; this minimizes the imbalance between the two individuals.

Adopting the process consultant role does the following:

  1. Reduces the ignorance inherent in the situation
  2. Minimizes the initial status differential
  3. Identifies what other role(s) may be most suitable for the identified problem.

Fundamental to the process consultant role “is the assumption that clients must be encouraged to remain proactive, in the sense of retaining both the diagnostic and remedial initiative because only they own the problem identified, only they know the true complexity of their situation, and only they know what will work for them in the culture in which they live” (Schein, 2009, p.62)

The above has prompted me to think about the role(s) I adopt in my educational development work. Though I strive to be/stay curious and ask questions, I wonder if I do so to the extent that is necessary to be truly helpful, especially when I am first approached for help.  I will pay more attention to this and to how I switch between roles.


Reference: Schein, E. (2009). Helping: How to offer, give and receive help.  San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.


Photo credit: Eva the Weaver “Help” (Creative Commons Licensed)

Helping: What it means in educational development


This table is taken from Schein, 2009 (p.7).

Educational development: “The profession dedicated to helping colleges and universities function effectively as teaching and learning communities” (from Felten, Kalish, Pingree, & Plank, 2007, p.93)

As an educational developer, helping is important.  Whether I am program planning, consulting, or facilitating, my ultimate aim is to help (to enhance teaching and learning in some way). Schein (2009) notes that there is helpful help and unhelpful help. I know I have done both.

In order to better understand what it means to help, I am reading Schein’s book  “Helping: How to offer, give and receive help”.  Below are some sense-making notes I have taken and quotes I find particularly useful from the first three chapters (future blog posts will explore the other chapters).

Schein begins by describing two cultural principles that are fundamental to understanding the helping relationship:

  • “….all communication between two parties is a reciprocal process that must be, or at least must seem to be, fair and equitable” (p.11)
  • “… all relationships in human cultures are to a large degree based on scripted roles that we learn to play early in life and which become so automatic that we are often not even conscious of them” (p.11-12)

He applies the notions of “social theatrics” and “social economics to describe communication within a cultural context.

According to Schein, “every helping relationship is in a state of imbalance” in the beginning (p.35). That imbalance exists largely because of the unequal power dynamics; the client (the term he uses for anyone seeking or being offered help) is “down” and the helper is “up”. “Being thrust into the role of help is immediately a gain in status and power…” (p.33),  Schein notes. The helping process is often impeded because the people involved fail to recognize the initial imbalance. Consequently, neither the helper or client initially knows what to expect and what to give the relationship.  So that our help may be helpful, we must address and deal with the imbalance.

Doing so, however, can be difficult because the helper and client may fall into traps.

Traps the helper may fall into Traps the client may fall into
  • dispensing wisdom prematurely
  • meeting defensiveness with more pressure
  • accepting the problem and over-reacting to the dependence
  • initial mistrust
  • relief
  • looking for attention, reassurance and/or validation instead of help

A successful helping relationship requires that the helper intervene in ways that “build up the client’s status” (p.47). By addressing the imbalance of power, the helping relationship may further develop and become productive.

Reference: Schein, E. (2009). Helping: How to offer, give and receive help.  San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.