Humble Inquiry
Edgar H. Schein

Humble Inquiry - Book Summary

The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling

Duration: 23:02
Release Date: May 10, 2024
Book Author: Edgar H. Schein
Categories: Communication Skills, Corporate Culture
Duration: 23:02
Release Date: May 10, 2024
Book Author: Edgar H. Schein
Categories: Communication Skills, Corporate Culture

In this episode of 20 Minute Books, we dive into "Humble Inquiry" by Edgar H. Schein. Published in 2013, this insightful book explores the subtle art of posing the right questions in the most effective way. Schein argues that the manner in which we inquire can significantly impact our relationships in the workplace, the quality of work we produce, and ultimately, our success as leaders.

Edgar H. Schein, the author of this transformative work, is the Society of Sloan Fellows Professor of Management Emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Throughout his illustrious career, he has been honored with numerous awards and has authored several influential books, including "Organizational Culture and Leadership" and "The Corporate Culture Survival Guide."

"Humble Inquiry" is particularly suited for individuals looking to enhance their communication skills within professional settings, aspiring leaders, and anyone interested in mastering the craft of asking impactful questions to foster better workplace dynamics and leadership efficacy. Join us as we unravel the principles that make humble inquiry a powerful tool for any professional.

Discover the art of humble inquiry to enhance your leadership and communication skills

Imagine it's Monday morning, and your boss bluntly critiques your recent performance, highlighting every downfall without offering a sense of direction. The impact? Likely, you'd feel deflated and perhaps even a little defensive. But what if, instead, your boss approached you with a curious tone, asking, "How are things going with your project? Is there anything you’d like to change or need help with?" This approach might open up a conversation, making you feel supported and valued rather than criticized.

This is the essence of "humble inquiry" — the gentle art of drawing someone out, of asking questions to which you do not already know the answer, of building a relationship based on curiosity and interest in the other person. This method stands in stark contrast to the more direct, often confrontational communication styles that can lead to resentment or suppressed creativity.

In our exploration of humble inquiry, we will uncover:

- How adopting the right communication stance can make or break team dynamics and performance.

- The effective ways to engage with people who have achieved high status, like Nobel Prize laureates, without feeling overwhelmed or inferior.

- Methods to foster a nurturing environment for children, steering clear of destructive communication patterns like shouting or reprimanding in anger.

Through the insights presented, you'll learn that the key to successful leadership and interpersonal relationships lies in how we pose our questions and engage in conversations. This not only enhances collective problem-solving but also builds a foundation of mutual respect and understanding. Whether in a corporate setting, amidst scholarly discussions, or even at home with family, the principles of humble inquiry can lead to more productive interactions and a more harmonious coexistence.

Crafting successful teams: The critical role of open communication

What defines a great team? Often, we admire sports teams for their synergy and the sheer tenacity that drives them to success. Yet, is it merely the gathering of talent that creates such dynamic groups? The answer is more complex: it hinges significantly on the quality of relationships and communication within the team.

Picture a football game — players shout cues to one another, constantly communicating openly and directly. "Go left," "I'm open," or "Great pass!" — these exchanges happen in real-time, without hesitation. It's this fearless communication that unites individual players into a formidable team where everyone can express their needs and thoughts unreservedly.

However, replicating this model of open communication in the corporate world often presents challenges. Many business leaders aspire to foster the kind of teamwork admired in sports but fall short, largely due to communication barriers, especially between managers and employees. It's common for employees to hold back their genuine thoughts, worrying that candid feedback might jeopardize their standing or be seen as confrontational.

For instance, consider the hesitance you might feel in telling your boss that the current company strategy is flawed. This fear of speaking up can have dire consequences. A stark example is the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, a disaster exacerbated by a critical communication failure, where vital information from the lower echelons of the organization failed to reach the decision-makers at the top.

To build a successful team, business leaders must cultivate an environment where all team members feel safe and valued in voicing their opinions and ideas. The journey to such an environment is not straightforward and requires a dedicated effort to transform traditional corporate communication norms.

In the upcoming segments, we'll explore actionable strategies and insights that can help leaders establish and maintain an atmosphere of open, honest communication. This environment not only supports operational success but also fosters a sense of belonging and mutual respect among all team members.

Fostering team trust through humble inquiry

Imagine leading a department and, to boost team spirit, you orchestrate a friendly relay race against another department. You kick off the race, sprinting towards your teammate for the first baton exchange. Commanding loudly, you yell, "Stick out your left hand!" Just as she complies, the baton slips through her fingers — a mishap exacerbated by a finger injury she hadn't mentioned.

Where did things go wrong? As a leader, it's vital to realize that your position might inhibit direct feedback or disagreement from your team. This is where the concept of humble inquiry becomes invaluable.

Humble inquiry is an approach that encourages asking questions to show genuine interest in others' perspectives and acknowledging their expertise. It’s about cultivating an environment where team members feel respected and valued enough to share critical information freely.

In the scenario of the relay race, a more effective approach would have been to inquire, "Which hand would you prefer for the baton exchange?" This simple question not only demonstrates consideration for your teammate's comfort but also encourages her to share any concerns that could impact the team’s performance.

But humble inquiry extends beyond mere tactics — it embodies a fundamental attitude of respect and inclusivity.

Reflect on an experience shared by the author, where the dean notified him of excessive telephone charges in his department. Presented with the dilemma of addressing this sensitive issue, he had several options: review the call list in a group setting, confront individuals directly, or distribute the list among the professors with a request for their feedback on resolving the matter.

Opting for the latter, the author placed trust in his colleagues, appealing to their integrity and cooperation. This approach not only resolved the issue as several faculty members acknowledged their role and agreed to change their behavior, but it also reinforced a culture of mutual respect and accountability.

Humble inquiry, therefore, is more than just a communicative technique. It's about building a foundation of trust and respect that empowers individuals and strengthens teams. By embracing this approach, leaders can inspire a more open, collaborative, and effective organizational environment.

Navigating the nuances of humble inquiry to enhance communication

Questioning techniques vary widely — from indirect probing that gently seeks information to direct questions that demand immediate answers. But no matter the approach, infusing humility into your inquiries can transform the dynamics of any conversation.

Humble inquiry isn't just about asking questions; it's about demonstrating a genuine interest in understanding the thoughts and feelings of others. When we emphasize "genuine," we mean that humble inquiry should be heartfelt and authentic, not just a superficial tactic.

One key factor that can convey your sincerity is non-verbal communication. Subtle cues like your tone of voice and body language can significantly influence how your questions are perceived, shaping whether others feel valued and understood.

Consider Ken Olsen, founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, who regularly practiced humble inquiry by simply asking his engineers, "What are you working on?" This approach not only facilitated open dialogue but also conveyed his genuine interest in their projects, building trust and respect throughout the organization.

However, situations might arise where a deeper exploration is necessary, requiring what is known as diagnostic inquiry. This form of questioning delves into specifics, aiming to uncover underlying issues or to steer the conversation towards particular areas of interest.

For example, if a friend mentions a recent job change, guiding the conversation with questions like "What prompted your decision to move?" or "How has this transition impacted you?" can provide deeper insights. Diagnostic inquiry, while more pointed, should still be conducted with humility, ensuring the conversation remains respectful and that the other person does not feel put on the spot or devalued.

Both humble and diagnostic inquiries are crucial tools in effective communication. They allow for a richer understanding of others and foster an environment where every voice is heard and respected. By mastering these techniques, you can enhance connectivity and collaboration, whether in personal relationships or professional environments.

Mastering the art of humble inquiry to guide and assess conversations

Humble inquiry is a multifaceted tool, effective not only in asking questions but also in steering conversations thoughtfully and examining their quality. Depending on your objectives within a dialogue, you might lean towards different types of inquiry.

Confrontational inquiry, for instance, can be particularly useful when you wish to subtly direct a conversation while still maintaining a posture of curiosity. This method involves interjecting your own thoughts in the form of a question, thereby injecting new perspectives without overtly challenging or opposing others.

Imagine you're in a meeting and notice some colleagues appearing uncomfortable. Instead of bluntly asking why they are uneasy, you could use confrontational inquiry to pose a question to another coworker, such as, "Do you think their discomfort might stem from concerns about project deadlines?" This approach allows you to explore potential underlying issues indirectly, encouraging a deeper discussion without making others feel defensive.

However, it’s crucial with confrontational inquiry to remain conscious of your intentions. This method should not be used to simply validate your assumptions or to dominate a discussion. Instead, it should be a genuine attempt to enrich the conversation and to gain a fuller understanding of others' viewpoints.

Another essential variant is process-oriented inquiry, which revolves around the dynamics of the conversation itself. This type of inquiry is particularly useful when a dialogue seems to go off-track or when you sense that the other party might feel uneasy.

Questions like, "Are we still on the same page?", "Did my last comment come off too strong?", or "Is this discussion still comfortable for you?" help to maintain a healthy conversational flow and ensure mutual comfort. These questions are not just about gathering information but about respecting and adjusting to the emotional state and comfort levels of your conversational partners.

Both confrontational and process-oriented inquiries are integral to practicing humble inquiry effectively. They allow you to guide discussions, ensure engagement, and foster an atmosphere where open, honest communication can thrive.

Understanding how to balance these approaches will not only enhance your interpersonal interactions but also help you build deeper, more meaningful relationships in both personal and professional settings. As we move forward, we'll explore common obstacles to effective communication and how to overcome them using the principles of humble inquiry.

How the "just get it done" mentality hinders effective communication and humble inquiry

Imagine asking a colleague for assistance on a project, only to be met with a sharp rebuff: "No. Can’t you see I’m busy with my own work?" Such responses are not only discouraging but are symptomatic of a broader cultural issue prevalent in many workplaces today— the prioritization of task completion over effective communication.

In the current work culture, particularly in the United States, success is often measured by one's ability to finish assigned tasks. Consider a tax analyst at the Internal Revenue Service, who is judged by the number of accounts they can audit. Those who excel at clearing their checklists tend to climb the career ladder, gaining authority to then assign tasks to others. This cycle perpetuates a command-and-control model, known colloquially as "do-and-tell," where upper-tier employees may inadvertently disregard or devalue the contributions of their subordinates.

This hierarchical approach fosters an environment where directive communication is the norm, and asking questions can be perceived as a weakness or lack of knowledge. For example, a manager inquiring, "What can we do here?" might be viewed not as inclusively rallying the team’s insight, but as uncertain about their own role and responsibilities.

Conversely, telling becomes misconstrued as a leadership virtue. In an illuminating conversation, when asked about the implications of being promoted to a manager, business students responded that it meant they "can now tell others what to do." This mindset not only stifles open dialogue but also undermines the potential for collaborative problem-solving and innovation.

The do-and-tell culture places a significant barrier to employing humble inquiry effectively within teams. When the emphasis is staunchly on task completion, the richness of asking thoughtful, open-ended questions to explore and understand colleagues' viewpoints is lost. Such an environment not only dampens team spirit but also impedes the flow of ideas necessary for adaptive and sustainable success.

Rethinking this ingrained attitude is crucial for fostering a workplace where communication thrives through mutual respect and genuine inquiry, paving the way for more cohesive and dynamic team interactions.

The barrier of status: How social hierarchies hinder humble inquiry

In our society, rank and status dramatically influence how we interact with each other, often dictating who can speak freely and who listens. Consider the surprise and gossip that would ensue if a CEO were spotted golfing with the office janitor. This scenario underscores a widespread preoccupation with social standing that not only fuels workplace hierarchies but also obstructs the path to genuine communication and relationship-building.

This hierarchy affects our capacity for humble inquiry. When we encounter new individuals, we instinctively assess their social or professional rank to determine their status relative to ours. This assessment then shapes our approach to interaction. For example, the author recalls a meeting where undergraduates asked to take a photo with him. Assuming a higher status due to his position as a professor, he reacted by simply posing with a smile, influenced by perceived superiority.

Conversely, when introduced to a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, someone he regarded as of higher status, the author’s demeanor shifted to one of awe and respect. This encounter prompted him to engage more earnestly in humble inquiry, demonstrating how our perception of status can alter our willingness to engage openly and vulnerably.

This dynamic is readily apparent in professional environments, particularly in corporate structures that practice the "do-and-tell" approach. Here, humility is often reserved for those above us in the hierarchy, to whom we show deferential respect. Conversely, we might not display the same level of respect to those we supervise.

Take, for example, a shopping scenario: a customer at a suit store typically receives deferential treatment from the sales associate, who aims to please and make a sale. However, the customer might not reciprocate this respectful behavior. Yet, in a situation where a tailor is fitting a suit, the customer is likely to heed the tailor’s advice, recognizing the tailor's expertise and control in that specific context.

These examples reflect a broader societal challenge — overcoming the ingrained biases associated with rank and status to foster a culture of humility and mutual respect. By recognizing and addressing these barriers, we can begin to cultivate environments where humble inquiry flourishes, leading to more effective and equitable communications.

Embracing the right mindset for effective communication and the ease of humble inquiry

Understanding the impact of social structures on communication is crucial, but equally important is recognizing how our personal mindset can shape the conversations we engage in. Naturally averse to criticism, many of us tend to shield our feelings and thoughts, often to the detriment of open and honest dialogue.

This tendency to 'play it safe' can significantly hinder the development of robust relationships, which are essential for fostering an environment conducive to humble inquiry. So, how can one shift from a guarded mindset to a more open and communicative one? A practical approach is to voluntarily share parts of your own experiences or preferences with your team. For instance, if you're a fan of karaoke, sharing your passion and experiences related to your favorite karaoke bar can encourage others to open up about their interests. Such exchanges not only break the ice but also strengthen team bonds, paving the way for more meaningful interactions.

Moreover, our conversations are often colored by personal biases, affecting our perception and interaction with others. For instance, one of the author's students was preparing for an important exam and had specifically instructed his family not to disturb him. However, when his six-year-old daughter knocked on his study door, he reacted harshly without seeking to understand her reasons, which were actually considerate — she came to say goodnight and offer him coffee to aid his studying.

This incident underscores the importance of tempering our reactions with humility and openness. By simply asking his daughter what she needed instead of assuming she was being disruptive, the student could have prevented a misunderstanding and emotional distress.

Ultimately, adopting a mindset that values openness and curiosity can tremendously enhance the quality of our interactions. Shifting from a defensive posture to one of humble inquiry not only makes us better communicators but also enriches our relationships both professionally and personally. Striving to understand before being understood, asking insightful questions, and openly sharing about ourselves are key steps towards achieving a more communicative and connected environment.

Essential takeaways from 'Humble Inquiry'

The core idea highlighted throughout this book is that effective communication is fundamentally intertwined with the quality of relationships we foster. Embracing humble inquiry as a communication strategy not only showcases genuine interest and trust in others but also establishes a robust foundation for deep, impactful relationships. This approach encourages a shift from merely exchanging information to truly connecting with people, thereby enhancing both personal and professional interactions.

Humble Inquiry Quotes by Edgar H. Schein

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