Edgar H. Schein, a former professor at MIT has done a lot of research in the field of organisational culture, and I particularly like the work he has done with respect to effective communication. His 2013 book “Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling” is a prime example of Schein’s endeavours to help create what he refers to as ‘positive relationships and effective organisations’.
What does the ‘humble’ part of Humble Inquiry stand for?
When Schein talks about humility in the context of humble inquiry, he refers to ‘Here-and-now Humility’. Schein describes this type of humility felt when a person is dependent on another person to help achieve certain goals or tasks that he or she has committed to. As Schein writes “My status is inferior to yours at this moment because you know something or can do something that I need in order to accomplish some task or goal that I have chosen.”
People can thus choose between denying the dependency on another person (and avoid feeling humble) or engaging with the other person (and be humble). Schein explains why Here-and now Humility’ is hard to learn; in achievement-oriented cultures where knowledge and display of it are admired, asking questions or admitting that you don’t know can be felt as a loss of status.
What does the ‘inquiry’ part of Humble Inquiry stand for?
Inquiry comes down to curiosity. Plain and simple. It means that you ask questions. But Schein is at pains to urge us not to ask any old question; in Humble Inquiry there is no place for:
- Leading questions – a question that prompts or encourages the answer wanted.
- Rhetorical questions – a question asked purely to create a dramatic effect or make a point, instead of getting an answer.
- Statements in the form of questions – you are just making a point or are trying to provoke, but not asking a question.
Humble Inquiry isn’t an exact science. Instead, Schein explains, it’s “the skill and the art of drawing someone out, of asking questions to which you don’t already know the answer, of building a relationship based on curiosity and interest in the other person.”
One of the things I like about the book is that Schein isn’t trying to be prescriptive about the specific questions you should ask. Instead, he encourages the reader to reflect on the kind of relationship that she wants to build and the forces that hinder us in practising Humble Inquiry. I’m keen, however, to offer some practical examples of questions that you could ask, which I believe stimulate active listening and trusted relationships:
“Can you help me understand why ___?”
“Would love to understand what you did here.”
“Just for my learning, can you please explain?”
“Can you think of any major risks related to this task”
“What is the biggest you learned from _____?”
“What is ____ like today? “Why is that?”
“What could we do differently and why?”
“Can you please talk me through the pros and cons?”
Main learning point: The concept of curiosity sounds so simple and obvious, but in reality we often resort to ‘telling’ instead of ‘asking’. Humble Inquiry teaches us to be mindful of other people and encourages developing a genuine interest in other people and the creation of trusted relationships.