Humble Inquiry | Edgar H. Schein

Summary of: Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling
By: Edgar H. Schein


In the book ‘Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling,’ author Edgar H. Schein argues that effective communication starts with asking genuine questions that reveal a respect for colleagues’ perspectives. Drawing on his decades of experience as a management professor, Schein moves away from the more hierarchical do-and-tell approach ingrained in today’s workplace. Through various methods such as humble inquiry, diagnostic inquiry, confrontational inquiry, and process-oriented inquiry, the author provides strategies for fostering a collaborative environment where open and honest communication can thrive.

Building Strong Team Relationships

The success of a team is not solely based on the talents of its members but also on the relationships between them. Effective communication is crucial in building these strong relationships. In sports teams, each member feels comfortable expressing their thoughts and opinions without fear. However, in business, communication barriers often exist between managers and employees. A lack of communication can lead to catastrophic consequences, such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Business leaders must create an environment where employees feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and ideas, regardless of their content. Building strong team relationships is critical in achieving success, and this summary will show you how to do it.

The Power of Humble Inquiry

As a boss, it might be challenging to get your colleagues to offer their perspective due to fear of disagreeing with you. However, using humble inquiry instead of making demands is a sure way to build trust and respect among colleagues. Humble inquiry goes beyond formulating questions; it is an attitude that promotes relationships and positive outcomes. By asking your colleagues questions that show their opinion matters, you are building trust, creating a way for them to offer their insight, and respecting their decisions. An example of how this simple technique can be effective is the author’s experience of using the third option to resolve a high phone bill issue in the department. By sending the list to each professor and asking for their input, several faculty members admitted to making personal calls and promised to stop, which resolved the problem.

The Power of Humble Inquiry

There are various ways to ask questions, but asking with humility can be a game-changer. Humble inquiry shows that you genuinely want to understand the other person’s perspective, and it is sincere by nature. People can pick up on subtle cues, such as tone of voice and body language, that indicate how much you care about their response. Diagnostic inquiry is another valuable tool for learning more about a specific topic by asking relevant questions. However, practicing humility is crucial in this type of inquiry to ensure that the person you are questioning does not feel offended or undervalued. Ken Olsen, the founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, used humble inquiry to build strong relationships with his employees and understand their work. By asking what an engineer was working on, Olsen gained both personal and professional insights. Overall, using humble inquiry in your conversations can lead to more meaningful connections and a deeper understanding of others’ perspectives.

Types of Humble Inquiry

Learning process-oriented and confrontational inquiry can help you achieve your communication goals without compromising your humility.

Humble inquiry is an approach to communication that promotes openness and curiosity. It can be broken down into two additional types: process-oriented inquiry and confrontational inquiry. Depending on what you aim to accomplish, you may want to use one or the other.

Confrontational inquiry allows you to steer a conversation in a specific direction by introducing your own ideas in the form of a question. You stay interested and curious while adding valuable information to the conversation. However, it’s essential to ensure that your conversation partner doesn’t feel confronted by your questions, and that your motives are pure. If your only goal is to test your assumptions, this approach may not be the best choice.

Process-oriented inquiry focuses on the relationship between you and your conversation partner. If you notice that a conversation has become derailed, you might need to probe for more information about how your partner feels. Asking questions like “Are we still OK?” or “Am I being too personal?” can help ensure that both parties feel comfortable and that everyone’s expectations are being met.

By learning about the different types of humble inquiry and applying them thoughtfully, you can achieve your communication goals without compromising your humility.

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