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A s k  t h e   E x p e r t
A regular column responding to readers' questions by sharing stories from the offbeat life of coach's coach Dr. Xavier Fink (his mother calls him Melvyn) as his colleagues interact at the sharp end of the business world.

Question: What is consulting, and how is it different to coaching?

Answer: Consulting is all about asking the right questions and should always be the research foundation on which your practice rests.

Dr. Fink
Illustration ©
Janet Schatzman 2007

The Fink Interview
A s k i n g  t h e  R i g h t  Q u e s t i o n s

By Dr. Laurence S. Lyons

Interviewer: We're delighted to have with us the distinguished expert Dr. M. Xavier Fink who has more degrees than a thermometer. Hello, Dr. Fink and welcome. Let's start right away with our postbag. One of our readers writes: Congratulations on "Ask the Expert" which I always enjoy. Dr. Fink has such wide knowledge. So my question is this: What should I ask Dr. Fink?
Dr. Fink: Thank you. That's the best question anyone could possibly ask.
Interviewer: Yes I'm sure it is. As she says, ours is such a vast subject, isn't it? That's why our readers turn to experts to help highlight those matters which are the most important in our field. So, Dr. Fink, as one such expert, how would you answer her?
Dr. Fink: You mean, what is my answer to the question: What should I ask Dr. Fink?
Interviewer: Yes, this reader—and I'm sure many others like her-would love to hear your answer to that question.
Dr. Fink: Well, the best question that she could possibly ask would be this: What should I ask Dr. Fink?
Interviewer: That was her question.
Dr. Fink: Yes it was.
Interviewer: And it was also your answer.
Dr. Fink: Yes it was.
Interviewer: And you say that that's the best question she could possibly have asked?
Dr. Fink: Oh yes, that would be the very best question in the whole wide world.
Interviewer: And why is that?
Dr. Fink: Well, because oftentimes your client simply doesn't know the right question to ask. And if she sets out with the wrong questions, she'll most likely find herself up a gum tree.
Interviewer: How might she avoid a sticky problem like that?
Dr. Fink: She could start by doing some research to determine what her best question might be. So, for example, she might ask an expert to tell her what important factors might apply in her case.
Interviewer: You're an expert.
Dr. Fink: Yes I am.
Interviewer: So you'd be a good person to ask?
Dr. Fink: Oh yes, I'd be a really great person to ask, one of the best. What point is there in having an expert on hand if you're not prepared to put questions to him?
Interviewer: So in the first instance she could turn to you, or someone like you?
Dr. Fink: Exactly so.
Interviewer: And if she were to ask you, what might you say?
Dr. Fink: Now that's a fantastic question! You're asking me what would be my answer to her specific question: What should I ask Dr. Fink?
Interviewer: Yes.
Dr. Fink: I haven't a clue.
Interviewer: You don't know?
Dr. Fink: No, I don't know the answer to that at all. That's what makes it such an extremely good question. It's a critical question.
Interviewer: Let me see if I've got this right. You're saying that her question is the best simply because you can't answer it?
Dr. Fink: Exactly.
Interviewer: Dr. Fink, I recollect that your experience is legendary, and as I mentioned earlier, you hold several advanced degrees in our subject. Our reader has put to you the best question you yourself say it's possible for anyone to ask. How can you sit here and proudly admit that you can't answer her basic question yet claim to be an expert?
Dr. Fink: Very easily. I think you have it totally round the wrong way, my friend. I'm recognized as a world-class expert precisely because of what I don't know right now. Specifically, I don't know anything about our reader or her situation. As with the medical doctor, she will surely rejoice that I prescribe nothing before I've even met her. You see, true expertise is based not on knowledge but on humility together with a sense of honest inquiry.
Interviewer: All right, let's move on. Perhaps you could say something about what you earlier called critical questions?
Dr. Fink: Of course. A critical question is one of the best questions that it is possible to ask.
Interviewer: How would you define a critical question?
Dr. Fink: It's simply any question you put to me which you believe I can't answer.
Interviewer: And that's one of the best questions that can be asked, is it?
Dr. Fink: It certainly is.
Interviewer: How can it be such a brilliant question if I already know that you can't answer it?
Dr. Fink: Because you're not putting it to me in order to discover any new information...
Interviewer: But if it doesn't surface any new information, what value can my critical question possibly have?
Dr. Fink: Vast value. Critical questions are never asked in order to find anything out. You'd normally ask a critical question simply to make the other person think.
Interviewer: I see. You would ask such a question with the sole intention of getting the other person to think? Nothing else?
Dr. Fink: Correct. That's what leadership coaching is all about; helping the other person reflect on the way she thinks; to discover what's important yet missing in her current thinking or knowledge; and sometimes to change the way she thinks. It would be a very dull world if all we ever did with questions was exchange data.
Interviewer: Perhaps I should summarize. The best question that can be asked is what should I be asking? An expert can't answer that question without knowing something about the client's situation. And to explore the client's understanding of her situation, the expert asks a critical question which you've said is one that you know in advance the client cannot currently answer. Isn't that all a bit strange?
Dr. Fink: Naturally. You surely don't expect to interview an expert and then be told things you thought you already knew?
Interviewer: Indeed, and on that basis, this has been a great interview. We've been privileged today to talk with and learn from Dr. M. Xavier Fink. Thank you. We've all been totally Finkalized!

Dr. Laurence S. Lyons, unlike Dr. Fink and his friends, is a real person and internationally renowned expert in organizational transformation and leadership development. He is a member of WABC's International Advisory Committee. A library of his work is available at www.lslyons.com. Read more about Larry in the WABC Coach Directory.

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