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Accessing Ignorance

“The doorstep to the temple of wisdom is knowledge of our own ignorance.”     — Benjamin Franklin

Modern Family is one of my favorite newer sitcoms, with the character of Phil providing, for me, the vast majority of the show’s humor.   Phil is an approaching middle age dad who tries to be ’cool’ for his young teen children and ‘sexy’ for his wife.  Part of Phil’s humor is his lack of knowledge of his own ignorance.   This picture shows Phil in a recent episode when he took a trip to the spa instead of his wife because her gift certificate was expiring  and she had too much to do.  While there, she calls to ask him to make dinner because of all she has to get done and he immediately goes into what Peter Block would call ‘doctor’ mode, suggesting a fix for her errands (but not saying yes to the help she is asking for – making dinner).  The women at the spa provide immediate feedback to him, telling him she doesn’t really want him to solve every problem, just to be there for her, making her feel supported.  In essence, they are telling Phil Claire needs a process consultant.

Block says as a ‘flawless consultant’ we must assess our ignorance, “distinguish what I know from what I assume I know from what I truly do not know”  in order to create a relationship with the client that allows them to improve their own situation.  Schein, in this Youtube video Helping, talks about the types of questions that build this relationship:  humble inquiry, diagnostic inquiry and confrontive inquiry.  He states that humble inquiry — asking the client to tell you more — allows yourself to be ignorant.  It is through the client’s discourse that you gain wisdom, the wisdom to best discern and provide the type of help the client really seeks.

Helping without providing solutions is not easy – for Phil or for me.  Phil discovered that providing support and drawing out more information was the key to winning Claire’s trust and affection.  This is a role I have to learn to take more often.  I start out with good intentions, but then my nature tells me to solve the problem when there is pushback.  Block says this pushback is crucial. It indicates you are asking the right questions because you are touching on the REAL issue.  I tend to react to pushback as a signal to solve the problem.  I resist confrontation and awkward silences.

A good example is when a teacher recently came to me to ask for thoughts about the implementation of a new curriculum.  He wanted to make it exciting and meaningful to the students from the first day.  BUT it was 3 days before the first day!  I started by suggesting we schedule some time to go over his thoughts about the curriculum and his plan for implementation (setting the platform for process and humble inquiry).  But I saw he was uneasy with that answer, so we briefly discussed a few ideas for the first week.  That evening I came across something that reminded me of our conversation, so I shot him the information – providing a solution.  He has not returned the email or scheduled the conversation.  Schein says that often if we try to help by doing something the other person can do for themselves we make them feel less than who they are.  Perhaps I have done this.

Asking for and accepting help does not come easy for me, but due to an accident break of my ankle I’ve spent the better part of the past few months both having to ask for help and trying to humbly accept help that is offered — even help I don’t always want to accept – because it makes me feel less than capable. Contracting for help on both sides of the equation is a delicate balance.  When asking for help, you need to be clear what you need.  When offering help, you need to be clear what is needed.  I believe it is important to not only consider how to respond as the helper, but also what it feels like to be the one asking for help, and sometimes the reaction to solutions offered without solicitation. For me, this has helped to “access my ignorance.” 

  • How do Block and Shein’s definitions of ‘consulting’ differ from coaching?  From leadership?
  • Is it possible to build a sustainable business model on flawless consulting?  Are there enough clients that would accept this type of ‘contracting’ for consulting services?
  • How does one/ can one recover from providing ‘bad help’ (both given and received) and move on to a more productive relationship?
  • How have others learned to be more proficient process consultants in the uneasiness of confrontation and awkward silence?

 “The greater our knowledge increases the more our ignorance unfolds.”     — John F. Kennedy


One Response to “Accessing Ignorance”

  1. J,

    First, I love Modern Family too! I don’t htink I will look at Phil the same way again 🙂

    BUT more importantly, this part of your post has really resonated with me:

    “Schein says that often if we try to help by doing something the other person can do for themselves we make them feel less than who they are. Perhaps I have done this.”

    Perhaps (definitely), I have done this too. I think your commentary on not just helping but HOW we help is really important. It is also really hard. We can never know 100% how a person needs to receive help or even what their true motives are for asking so we can’t cater perfectly. However, you make a good point that in taking time to at least consider these apsects we improve our chances of being a help and in the most helpful way.


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