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.



Giving and Receiving Feedback

Gerry Weinberg defines feedback as information about past behaviour delivered in the present which may influence future behaviour.  One of the most important person to person communication skills is the ability to give and receive feedback effectively.  Carl Rogers, noted psychologist, observed that one of our powerful needs is to be heard and understood.

It is important to note that if people don’t want your feedback, you will never succeed in reaching them, no matter how smart or wonderful you may be.  It is advisable not to give feedback uninvited, not because it is morally wrong, but because it just doesn’t work.

Characteristics of good feedback

Shirley Poertner and Karen Massetti Miller, in their book, “The Art of Giving and Receiving feedback” talk of 5 characteristics of a good feedback.

  1. Focussed on action, not attitude – Feedback is best given responding to specific actions that are done in the process of performing one’s job, not on a person’s attitude or personal characteristics
  2. Directed to the future – Useful feedback uses past actions as a starting point to help the recipient to develop effective plans for future action
  3. Feedback is multi directional – Feedback is provided not just from a manager to his subordinate, but upwards to one’s manager and also laterally to other co-workers.
  4. Given in a spirit of supportiveness – Feedback should never be given in a way that belittles the recipient or make others look good at that person’s expense
  5. Feedback is continual – Feedback is not something that is provided once a year, during the annual performance review.  It is a continuous process which should make team members feel comfortable responding to each other on an ongoing basis.

Providing effective feedback

Effective feedback is that which is clearly heard, understood and accepted.

  1. Feedback is about behaviour not personality. In giving feedback, it is essential that you are making no comment on what type of person they are, or what they believe or value – the feedback is only on their behaviour.
  2. Feedback should describe the effect of the person’s behaviour on you – Feedback should be presented as your opinion as it makes it easier for the recipient to hear and accept it, even if you are giving negative feedback. It is critical to choose your feedback language carefully. Useful phrases for giving feedback include:

“When you did [AAA], I felt [BBB].”

“I noticed that when you said [AAA], it made me feel [BBB].”

“I really liked the way that you did [AAA] and particularly [BBB] about it.”

“It made me feel really [AAA] to hear you say [BBB] in that way.”

  1. Feedback should be as specific as possible – Often, you blame the other person for everything he / she does. It is paramount to talk of specific occasions, specific behaviour, talk of exactly what the person did and how it made you feel – the more specific the better in making the feedback effective.
  2.  Feedback should be timely – It’s no point telling someone about something that offended or pleased you six months later. Feedback needs to be timely, that is everyone can still remember what happened.
  3. 5. Pick your moment – There are times when people are feeling open to feedback and times when they aren’t. For example, an angry person won’t want to accept feedback, even if given skilfully. Wait until they’ve calmed down a bit, before you put across your thoughts.

Giving feedback

If you have all the preparatory work in place to provide the feedback, you would need to choose an appropriate time and place to give it.  It would be better if you planned it in advance and fixed a time that would be convenient for both, you and the recipient. It is desirable to choose a private area where your conversation won’t be overheard.  Finally, before you start the feedback session, help the person to feel comfortable – in some cases it would be advisable to start a casual conversation before you delve into the topic to break the ice.

Steps for giving feedback

  1. Describe the behaviour that prompted the feedback session – Begin the feedback session with a description of the behaviour you want to change – without making a value judgement or expressing anger or disappointment. It is preferable that you cite more than one instance of it, so that the recipient gets an idea of the extent of the problem.
  1. Listen to the reaction of the recipient – Once you have given the detailed description of the behaviour, give the recipient a chance to respond. There could be three possible responses from the recipient – that he
  • Acknowledges the problem,
  • Expresses confusion over expectations
  • Refuses to accept responsibility.

If the recipient is confused over expectations,   take time to clarify them patiently. The recipient should agree on a set of reasonable expectations and should be ready to acknowledge his/her responsibility for meeting them.  For those refusing to accept responsibility, emphasize the negative impact that the individual’s current behaviour is having on co-workers and the organization as a whole,  and convince that he/she would face significant consequences if the behaviour continues.

  1. Develop an action plan – The goal of the feedback is to improve future performance or behaviour and hence it is essential that develop a specific plan for the recipient to meet the objectives. With an overall goal in mind, the recipient can list out the steps to reach that objective.
  1. Thank the recipient for his or her efforts – Appreciate the recipient for the time spent for the meeting and summarize the conversation and the future course of action.

Receiving feedback


Often we find it difficult to receive feedback.   It is critical that you must put aside feelings of defensiveness and focus on the details that can help you change your behaviour.  While receiving feedback, you should

  1. Be a careful listener – listening is one of the most important communication skills, yet few of us know how to listen effectively. Mindful listening – keeping away distracting thoughts, staying present and truly hear what the other person is communicating is essential while receiving feedback.
  1. Keep all feedback in perspective – It is easy to overreact to feedback. A feedback that reinforces positive behaviour could generate positive feelings.  However, those who may not have the expertise to deliver negative feedback well, could possibly make the recipient produce a fight or flight response.   Hence it is important to keep all feedback in perspective and use feedback as a guide to determine if you should repeat or change specific actions.
  1. Try to learn from all feedback, even if presented poorly – In a perfect world, all feedback we receive would be presented in appropriate manner. However, there could be instances where feedback is given poorly, often bordering on rudeness. If the recipient ignores such feedback, you may miss out important information that can help you do your job better.

Steps for receiving feedback


  1. Ask for as much detailed information as possible – it is essential to probe for as many details as possible – these could be used to improve your performance or meet your goals.
  1. Paraphrase what you think you’ve heard – even listening attentively, you might miss out some of the details of the feedback presented to you.  Once the “giver” has finished describing his perspective, it would be good if the recipient restates the understanding of the feedback in his own words and ask if that interpretation is correct.
  1. Seek suggestions for future actions – the purpose of feedback is to share information that will help you plan for the future. You could ask the other person to help you develop a plan for changing your future actions.
  1. Thank the person giving the feedback – Thank the person for the time and effort spent in providing the feedback – and set a positive tone for possible future interactions.


The purpose of feedback is not to dwell on the past – it is to plan for improvement in the future.   Marshall Goldsmith finds a basic problem with all types of feedback – since it focuses on the past which has already occurred and as such feedback can only be limited and static, in terms of any actions taken on them. Marshall suggests a process of feedforward – where the recipient picks on one behaviour that he/she would like to change, one which would make a significant change in their lives. He then asks others in the group to provide two suggestions for the future that might help them achieve a positive change in the selected behaviour.  This process is repeated till all the members of the group are covered.

Marshall feels that the process of feedforward is useful as it focuses on the future and not on the past, which cannot be changed. It is more productive as it helps people learn to be “right” than prove they were “wrong”.  And importantly, people hate giving or receiving negative feedback – the process of feedforward talks of only positive changes required for a change in future behaviour.