Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling (2013). Written by Edgar H. Schein is a relatively short book written to help create positive relationships and effective organizations. The process defined by Schein is simple to describe, but difficult for most of us to implement. There are only three steps that we need to perform that lead to better relationships :

  1. Do less telling
  2. Ask better questions
  3. Listen to their answers

Edgar Schein is Professor Emeritus at the MIT Sloan School of Management, where he taught until 2005. Schein has been awarded several Lifetime achievement awards, distinguished scholar awards, and fellowships. He earned his doctorate from Harvard in social psychology and his master’s degree at Stanford in psychology and his bachelor’s degree at the University of Chicago. He heads the Organizational Culture and Leadership Institute with his son Peter where they provide organizational development consulting to CEOs and senior executives with global enterprises. Schein has authored several academic papers and published eight books on Organizational Development.

In the opening chapter, Schein discusses three types of Humility. Basic Humility which is based on the status individuals are born into, and others are conditioned to respect. Optional Humility is where deference is granted to one based on their accomplishments, and Here and now, Humility is granted when one feels a dependency upon another. Here and Now, Humility is the type of Humility that is present in subordinates, students, and patients. If it is relationships that we are after, then I believe Schein may have missed a category, and that is the Humility granted to another’s humanity.

Chapter 3 describes four separate types of Inquiry, Humble Inquiry, which is the act of asking a question that I do not already know the answer to and genuinely listening to the answer. Diagnostic Inquiry which is one will answer a question with a question, and this is a form of asking clarifying questions. Rather than answering the original question from someone, we ask a clarifying question to get to the understanding of what they are really looking for.  Confrontational Inquiry is a form of making a statement in the form of a question. Confrontational Inquiry is typically a covert attempt to insert your ideas and opinions into the conversation while trying to look like you are helping. Process-oriented Inquiry can be a combination of all three other forms of inquiry and is dependent on the questioner’s intent, whether it is a positive or negative form of questioning.

Schein believes that Humble Inquiry is the key to relationship development. I would like for the book to expand this section just a bit, and maybe not be so definitive about the concept of “asking questions in which you do not already know the answer.” My suggestion to the author would be to ask the question anyway, not in a condescending way (making a statement look like an answer), but one with the interest and curiosity described above. While there is undoubtedly the need for humility in our questioning of others, Diagnostic Inquiry is a great tool to dive deep and understand the meaning of the other person.

There are potentially several answers to the same question. We all can see the same object from different points of view, and thus reach different conclusions as to what we believe is best. Hearing the point of view from another, even to a question, I believe I have the answer to, provides me with insight into how the other thinks and views the world.  The way I listen to their answer showing care and interest I display in trying to understand their position can lead not only to more information about the object but a deeper relationship with the other person.

Regardless of which type of humility that may be present, the concepts described in this book require one to ask questions in deference to another to draw them out, and feel safe to become vulnerable. It is in asking these questions and honestly listening to answers from the other’s perspective that shows interest and curiosity in them. These are the conditions that lead to respect and trusting relationships with others.

Humble Inquiry is one of my favorite books on communication, and one I recommend to the participants of our Effective Communications course. The message I received when I read this book, and I have read it multiple times, is the humility that one displays in listening with the intent to understand is the key to better communication. The inquiry or questions I ask are there to allow me to listen, to understand, and to connect with others.