For this post I draw extensively from the thought leadership of Edgar H. Schein as described in his 2013 book ‘Humble Inquiry – The gentle art of asking instead of telling’

“Humble inquiry is the fine art of drawing someone out, of asking questions to which you do not already know the answer, of building a relationship based on curiosity and interest in the other person.” Page 2

Humble inquiry builds relationships, openness, curiosity, diversity of though, and trust. It is an attitude reflected in behaviors that are appropriate to the specific situation: empathy, your full attention, and shedding your own needs, objectives, and story. The latter is quite the accomplishment to achieve! So lets look closer at humility. Schein talks about three kinds of humility:

  1. The humility that we feel around elders and dignitaries – basic humility.
  2. The humility that we feel in the presence of those who awe us with their achievements – optional humility.
  3. Here-and-Now Humility, which results from being dependent on someone in order to accomplish a task that we are committed to. This may be challenging to realize in an achievement-oriented culture, in which knowledge and the display of it as well as being right and ‘knowing it (all)’, are admired.

In many organizations, staff members do not feel safe bringing negative information to supervisors and leaders, especially if those bosses are about to make a mistake. The art of questioning and disputing becomes more difficult as status increases and it becomes more difficult for others to question and challenge you. It’s especially important to ask not tell and practice humble inquiry when conversations go wrong, when our best advice is ignored, when we get upset with the advice that others give us, when our subordinates fail to tell us things that would improve matters of avoid pitfalls, when discussions turn into arguments that end in stalemates and hurt feelings: what went wrong and what can we do differently next time to get better outcomes?

Humble inquiry shows interest in the other person, it signals an eagerness to listen and learn, and it empowers the person. It’s about asking the right questions and listening carefully. The dilemma in many western cultures is that we don’t really distinguish humble inquiry from leading questions, rhetorical questions, embarrassing questions, or statements in the form of questions – at times deliberately provocative. Here are two questions for you to ponder: “Should I become better at asking and doing less telling in a culture that overvalues telling? How would my team and my leadership effectiveness be impacted if I get better at determining when to ask, when to tell, when to discuss?

How may the following thoughts and principles increase your leadership effectiveness? How can you apply Humble Inquiry principles and practices to help your staff be successful?

  • Reflect carefully about what you are really trying to accomplish before leaping into action.
  • For ‘Here-and-Now Humility’, accept dependency on others for relevant information and insights.
  • Don’t assume that the person with the question (including you) has asked the right question.
  • Leverage the power of ignorance and let your curiosity lead you – it helps you to know what to ask.
  • Your genuine interest in someone is clear in what you ask and in how well you hear the response.
  • Most important is not that you you inquire, yet to reflect on how you inquire, solicit, ask, and listen. 

Just to be clear, please distinguish between the following kinds of inquiry

  1. Humble inquiry: Maximizes your curiosity and interest in the person and minimizes bias and preconception about the person. Access your ignorance and ask for information in the least threatening and biased way. The assumptions of both people about the purpose of the meeting is important.
  2. Diagnostic inquiry: when you get curious about a particular thing the person said and you choose to focus on it. You’re not telling in this kind of conversation yet you are steering and influencing the conversation in a certain direction. It influences the other person’s mental process. Your diagnostic focus can be aimed at feelings and reactions or at causes and motives or at action or at building an understanding of the total situation with systemic questions.
  3. Confrontational inquiry: You insert your own ideas but in the form of questions, taking charge of process and content. You are implicitly giving advice which usually creates resistance which hampers building a relationship.

Concluding thoughts

  • A culture of Do and Tell hampers practicing humble inquiry.
  • There are many implicit assumptions that make up a culture, and these assumptions may or may not align with each other. All cultures have rules about status and respect.
  • A real danger: our implicit assumptions have dropped out of conscious debate.