Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling

Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling

by Edgar H. Schein


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Communication is essential in a healthy organization. But all too often when we interact with people—especially those who report to us—we simply tell them what we think they need to know. This shuts them down. To generate bold new ideas, to avoid disastrous mistakes, to develop agility and flexibility, we need to practice Humble Inquiry.

Ed Schein defines Humble Inquiry as “the fine art of drawing someone out, of asking questions to which you do not know the answer, of building a relationship based on curiosity and interest in the other person.” In this seminal work, Schein contrasts Humble Inquiry with other kinds of inquiry, shows the benefits Humble Inquiry provides in many different settings, and offers advice on overcoming the cultural, organizational, and psychological barriers that keep us from practicing it.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781609949815
Publisher: Berrett-Koehler Publishers
Publication date: 09/02/2013
Series: The Humble Leadership Series Series , #2
Pages: 144
Sales rank: 63,649
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Edgar H. Schein is the Society of Sloan Fellows Professor of Management Emeritus at the MIT Sloan School of Management. His previous books include Helping; Process Consultation Revisited; The Corporate Culture Survival Guide; DEC Is Dead, Long Live DEC; Organizational Culture and Leadership; and Career Anchors.

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Humble Inquiry

The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling


Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2013 Edgar H. Schein
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60994-981-5


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 or avoid pitfalls, when discussions turn into arguments that end in stalemates and hurt feelings—what went wrong and what could have been done to get better outcomes?

A vivid example came from one of my executive students in the MIT Sloan Program who was studying for his important finance exam in his basement study. He had explicitly instructed his six-year-old daughter not to interrupt him. He was deep into his work when a knock on the door announced the arrival of his daughter. He said sharply, "I thought I told you not to interrupt me." The little girl burst into tears and ran off. The next morning his wife berated him for upsetting the daughter. He defended himself vigorously until his wife interrupted and said, "I sent her down to you to say goodnight and ask you if you wanted a cup of coffee to help with your studying. Why did you yell at her instead of asking her why she was there?"

How can we do better? The answer is simple, but its implementation is not. We would have to do three things: 1) do less telling; 2) learn to do more asking in the particular form of Humble Inquiry; and 3) do a better job of listening and acknowledging. Talking and listening have received enormous attention via hundreds of books on communication. But the social art of asking a question has been strangely neglected.

Yet what we ask and the particular form in which we ask it—what I describe as Humble Inquiry—is ultimately the basis for building trusting relationships, which facilitates better communication and, thereby, ensures collaboration where it is needed to get the job done.

Some tasks can be accomplished by each person doing his or her own thing. If that is the case, building relationships and improving communication may not matter. In the team sports of basketball, soccer, and hockey, teamwork is desirable but not essential. But when all the parties have to do the right thing—when there is complete, simultaneous interdependence, as in a seesaw or a relay race—then good relationships and open communication become essential.

How Does Asking Build Relationships?

We all live in a culture of Tell and find it difficult to ask, especially to ask in a humble way. What is so wrong with telling? The short answer is a sociological one. Telling puts the other person down. It implies that the other person does not already know what I am telling and that the other person ought to know it. Often when I am told something that I did not ask about, I find that I already know that and wonder why the person assumes that I don't. When I am told things that I already know or have thought of, at the minimum I get impatient, and at the maximum I get offended. The fact that the other person says, "But I was only trying to help—you might not have thought of it," does not end up being helpful or reassuring.

On the other hand, asking temporarily empowers the other person in the conversation and temporarily makes me vulnerable. It implies that the other person knows something that I need to or want to know. It draws the other person into the situation and into the driver's seat; it enables the other person to help or hurt me and, thereby, opens the door to building a relationship. If I don't care about communicating or building a relationship with the other person, then telling is fine. But if part of the goal of the conversation is to improve communication and build a relationship, then telling is more risky than asking.

A conversation that leads to a relationship has to be sociologically equitable and balanced. If I want to build a relationship, I have to begin by investing something in it. Humble Inquiry is investing by spending some of my attention up front. My question is conveying to the other person, "I am prepared to listen to you and am making myself vulnerable to you." I will get a return on my investment if what the other person tells me is something that I did not know before and needed to know. I will then appreciate being told something new, and a relationship can begin to develop through successive cycles of being told something in response to asking.

Trust builds on my end because I have made myself vulnerable, and the other person has not taken advantage of me nor ignored me. Trust builds on the other person's end because I have shown an interest in and paid attention to what I have been told. A conversation that builds a trusting relationship is, therefore, an interactive process in which each party invests and gets something of value in return.

All of this occurs within the cultural boundaries of what is considered appropriate good manners and civility. The participants exchange information and attention in successive cycles guided by each of their perceptions of the cultural boundaries of what is appropriate to ask and tell about in the given situation.

Why does this not occur routinely? Don't we all know how to ask questions? Of course we think we know how to ask, but we fail to notice how often even our questions are just another form of telling—rhetorical or just testing whether what we think is right. We are biased toward telling instead of asking because we live in a pragmatic, problem-solving culture in which knowing things and telling others what we know is valued. We also live in a structured society in which building relationships is not as important as task accomplishment, in which it is appropriate and expected that the subordinate does more asking than telling, while the boss does more telling that asking. Having to ask is a sign of weakness or ignorance, so we avoid it as much as possible.

Yet there is growing evidence that many tasks get accomplished better and more safely if team members and especially bosses learn to build relationships through the art of Humble Inquiry. This form of asking shows interest in the other person, signals a willingness to listen, and, thereby, temporarily empowers the other person. It implies a temporary state of dependence on another and, therefore, implies a kind of Here-and-now Humility, which must be distinguished from two other forms of humility.

Three Kinds of Humility

Humility, in the most general sense, refers to granting someone else a higher status than one claims for oneself. To be humiliated means to be publicly deprived of one's claimed status, to lose face. It is unacceptable in all cultures to humiliate another person, but the rules for what constitutes humiliation vary among cultures due to differences in how status is granted. Therefore, to understand Humble Inquiry, we need to distinguish three kinds of humility based on three kinds of status:

1) Basic humility—In traditional societies where status is ascribed by birth or social position, humility is not a choice but a condition. One can accept it or resent it, but one cannot arbitrarily change it. In most cultures the "upper class" is granted an intrinsic respect based on the status one is born into. In Western democracies such as the United States, we are in conflict about how humble to be in front of someone who has been born into it rather than having achieved it. But all cultures dictate the minimum amount of respect required, or the expected politeness and acknowledgment that adults owe each other. We all acknowledge that as human beings we owe each other some basic respect and should act with some measure of civility.

2) Optional humility—In societies where status is achieved through one's accomplishments, we tend to feel humble in the presence of people who have clearly achieved more than we have, and we either admire or envy them. This is optional because we have the choice whether or not to put ourselves in the presence of others who would humble us with their achievements. We can avoid such feelings of humility by the company we choose and who we choose to compare ourselves to, our reference groups. When in the presence of someone whose achievements we respect, we generally know what the expected rules of deference and demeanor are, but these can vary by occupational culture. How to properly show respect for the Nobel Prize-winning physicist or the Olympic Gold Medal-winner may require some coaching by occupational insiders.

3) Here-and-now Humility—There is a third kind of humility that is crucial for the understanding of Humble Inquiry. Here-and-now Humility is how I feel when I am dependent on you. 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. You have the power to help or hinder me in the achievement of goals that I have chosen and have committed to. I have to be humble because I am temporarily dependent on you. Here I also have a choice. I can either not commit to tasks that make me dependent on others, or I can deny the dependency, avoid feeling humble, fail to get what I need, and, thereby, fail to accomplish the task or unwittingly sabotage it. Unfortunately people often would rather fail than to admit their dependency on someone else.

This kind of humility is easy to see and feel when you are the subordinate, the student, or the patient/client because the situation you are in defines relative status. It is less visible in a team among peers, and it is often totally invisible to the boss who may assume that the formal power granted by the position itself will guarantee the performance of the subordinate. The boss may not perceive his or her dependency on the subordinate, either because of incorrect assumptions about the nature of the task that is being performed or because of incorrect assumptions about a subordinate's level of commitment to the particular job. The boss may assume that if something is in the subordinate's job description, it will be done, and not notice the many ways in which subordinates will withhold information or drift off what they have been trained for. But, if I am a boss on a seesaw or in a relay race in which everyone's performance matters to getting the job done at all, I am de facto dependent on the subordinate whether I recognize it or not. Getting the seesaw to move and passing the baton will work only if all the participants, regardless of formal status, recognize their dependence on each other. It is in that situation where Humble Inquiry by all the parties becomes most relevant, where the humility is not based on a priori status gaps or differences in prior achievement, but on recognized here-and-now interdependence.

When you are dependent on someone to get a task accomplished, it is essential that you build a relationship with that person that will lead to open task-related communication. Consider two possibilities. You are the boss in the relay race. Telling the person to put out her or his left hand so that you, who are right-handed, can easily pass the baton, may or may not lead to effective passing. However, if you decide to engage in Humble Inquiry prior to the race, you might ask your teammate's preference for which hand to use. You might then discover that the person has an injured left hand that does not work as well, and it would be better for you to pass with your left.

Shouldn't the subordinate have mentioned that before the race anyway? Not if in that culture for one person to speak up directly to a person of higher status is taboo. If the baton pass is an instrument a nurse passes to the surgeon, isn't it enough for the surgeon to tell the nurse what she needs and expect a correct response? Ordinarily yes, but what if the nurse is temporarily distracted by a beep from monitoring equipment or confused because of a possible language problem or thinks it is the wrong instrument? Should he not speak up and admit that he does not understand, or are the cultural forces in the situation such that he will guess and maybe make a costly mistake? If, in the culture of that operating room, the doctors are gods and one simply does not question or confront them, that nurse will not speak up, even if there is potential harm to the patient. My point is that in both of those examples, the boss and the doctor are de facto dependent on their subordinates and must, therefore, recognize their Here-and-now Humility. Failure to do so and failure to engage in Humble Inquiry to build a relationship prior to the race or the operation itself then leads to poor performance, potential harm, and feelings of frustration all around.

When such situations occur within a given culture where the rules of deference and demeanor are clear, there is a chance that the parties will understand each other. But when the team members in an interdependent task are more multicultural, both the language and the set of behavioral rules about how to deal with authority and trust may vary. To make this clear, let's look at a hypothetical multicultural example from medicine, keeping in mind that the same cultural forces would operate in a comparable example of a task force in a business or in a curriculum committee in a school.


Consider these three types of humility in the context of a hypothetical British hospital operating room where a complex operation is being performed. The surgeon is Dr. Roderick Brown, the son of Lord Brown, who is a respected senior surgeon and works with the Royal Family; the anesthesiologist is Dr. Yoshi Tanaka, recently arrived from Japan on a residency fellowship; the surgical nurse is Amy Grant, an American working in the United Kingdom because her husband has a job there; and the surgical tech is Jack Swift, who is from a lower-class section of London and has gone as high as he is likely to go at the hospital.

All the members of the team would feel some basic humility with respect to the surgeon, Dr. Brown, except possibly Amy, who does not particularly respect the British class structure. Both Amy and Dr. Tanaka would feel optional humility with respect to Dr. Brown because they can see how talented Brown is with surgical tools. Jack is likely to feel such optional humility with respect to all the others in the room. What none of them may be sufficiently aware of is that they are interdependent and will, therefore, have to experience Here-and-now Humility from time to time with respect to each other.

Dr. Brown, the senior surgeon, may know implicitly, but would not necessarily acknowledge openly, that he is also dependent on the other three. A situation might well arise where he needs information or something to be done by the others in the room who have lower status than he. In the context of the task to be done, situations will arise where an occupationally higher-status person temporarily has lower status by virtue of being dependent and, therefore, should display Here-and-now Humility to ensure a better performance and a safer outcome for the patient.

The higher-status person often denies or glosses this kind of dependency by rationalizing that "I am, after all, working with professionals." That implies that they are all competent, are committed to the superordinate goals of healing the patient, and accept their roles and relative status in the room. It implies that they don't feel humiliated by having orders barked at them or having help demanded of them. Their "professionalism" also typically assumes that they will not humiliate the person with higher status by offering criticism or help unless asked. The burden then falls on the higher-status person to ask for help and to create the climate that gives permission for the help to be given.

Situational Trouble or Surprise. If things work smoothly, there may be no issues around status and open communication. But what if something goes wrong or something unexpected occurs? For example, if Dr. Tanaka is about to make a major mistake on the anesthetics, and the nurse, Amy, notices it, what should she do? Should she speak up? And what are the consequences of her speaking up about it? Being American, she might just blurt it out and risk that Dr. Tanaka would, in fact, be humiliated by being corrected by a lower-status nurse, a woman, and an American.

If the corrective comment was made by Dr. Brown, it might be embarrassing, but would have been accepted because the senior person can legitimately correct the junior person. Dr. Tanaka might actually appreciate it. Jack might have seen the potential error but would not feel licensed to speak up at all. If Amy or the tech made the mistake, they might get yelled at and thrown off the team because from the point of view of the senior doctor, they could easily be replaced by someone more competent.

What if Dr. Brown was about to make a mistake, would anyone tell him? Dr. Tanaka has learned in his culture that one never corrects a superior. This might go so far as to cover up for a surgeon's mistake in order to protect the face of the superior and the profession. Amy would experience conflict and might or might not speak up depending on how psychologically safe she felt in the situation. That might be based psychologically safe she felt in the situation. That might be based on what kind of history of communication and relationship she had with Dr. Brown and other male surgeons in her past career. She might not know whether Dr. Brown would be humiliated by having a nurse offer a corrective comment or question. And humiliation must be avoided in most cultures, so it would be difficult for her to speak up unless she and Dr. Brown had built a relationship in which she felt safe to do so.

Excerpted from Humble Inquiry by EDGAR H. SCHEIN. Copyright © 2013 Edgar H. Schein. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc..
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Table of Contents

Introduction: Creating Positive Relationships and Effective Organizations
1 Humble Inquiry
2 Humble Inquiry in Practice—Case Examples
3 Differentiating Humble Inquiry from Other Kinds of Inquiry
4 The Culture of Do and Tell
5 Status, Rank, and Role Boundaries as Inhibitors
6 Forces Inside Us as Inhibitors
7 Developing the Attitude of Humble Inquiry
About the Author
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