Brief Summary of “Humble Inquiry – The Gentle art of Asking instead of Telling”

Here is a brief summary of the book ‘ Humble Inquiry – The Gentle Art of Asking instead of Telling’ by Edgar Schein.

  • Humble Inquiry is the basis for building trusting relationships which facilitates better communication and thereby ensures collaboration where is needed to get the job done.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • The form of asking through Humble Inquiry 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’.
  • Humility in the most general sense refers to granting someone else a higher status than one claims for oneself. The three kinds of humility are
    • Basic Humility – In traditional societies where status is ascribed by birth or social position, humility is not a choice but a condition – “the Upper Class” is granted an intrinsic respect based on the status one is born into.
    • 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.
    • Here and Now Humility – this 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.
  • 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.
  • Humble Inquiry implies a desire to build a relationship that will lead to more open communication. It also implies that one makes oneself vulnerable and thereby, arouses positive helping behavior to the other person.  It is about an attitude of interest and curiosity.
  • There are four different forms of inquiry
    • Humble Inquiry
    • Diagnostic Inquiry
    • Confrontational Inquiry
    • Process-oriented Inquiry
  • Humble Inquiry
    • Maximizes my curiosity and interest in the other person and minimizes bias and preconceptions about the other person.
    • I want to access my ignorance and ask for information in the least biased and threatening way.
    • I really want to inquire in the way that will best discover what is really on the other person’s mind.
    • Humble Inquiry does not influence either the content of what the other person has to say, nor in the form in which it is said.
  • Diagnostic Inquiry – This is a form of Humble Inquiry but steers the conversation and influence the other person’s mental process in unknown ways. This can be further classified by what the questioner’s diagnostic focus is.
    • Feelings and Reactions – questions that focus others on their feelings and reactions in response to the events they have described or the problems they have been identified. Asking about feelings in way to personalize the relationship, which may or may not be appropriate in the situation you are in at the moment.  g. How did you feel about that?
    • Causes and motives – questions about motivation or about causes that focus the others on their motivations in relation to something they have been talking about. g. why did that happen?
    • Action Oriented – questions that focus others on what they did, are thinking about doing, or plan to do in the future. g.  What have you tried so far?  What are you going to do next?
    • Systemic Questions – questions that build understanding of the total solution. This form of questioning can be very powerful if you and the other have agreed to explore a situation in detail. g. What did he do then?  How do you think she felt when you did that?
  • Confrontational Inquiry – the essence of confrontational inquiry is that you now insert your own ideas, but in the form of a question.
    • The question may be based on curiosity or interest, but is now in connection with your own interests.  g. “Did that not make you angry?”  Vs “How does that that make you feel?”
    • Timing, tone of voice and various other cues tell the listener about your motives.
  • Process-Oriented Inquiry – This shifts the conversational focus onto the conversation itself.
    • It focuses on the relationship and enables both parties to assess whether their relationship goals are being met.
    • Used with humility this kind of inquiry is probably also the most difficult to learn because our culture does not support it as normal conversation.
    • This however, is often the most powerful way to get out of awkward or difficult conversations because it allows both parties to reset, to restate what they are there for, what they want, and in their ways, re-calibrate their expectations. g. What is happening here? Have we gone too far?
  • Humble Inquiry is necessary if we want to build a relationship beyond rudimentary civility, because we may find ourselves in various kinds of inter dependencies in which open, task relevant information must be conveyed across status boundaries.
  • It is only by learning to be more humbly inquiring can we build up the mutual trust needed to work together and open up communication channels.


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