Humble Inquiry – Edgar H. Schein

Reading Time: 3 minutes

A very fundamental exploration of how to connect with others through mastering the art of asking better/quality questions. This book is written for anyone who is looking to improve their overall professional and personal relationships.

Humble Inquiry is an approach and a mindset that results in empowering individuals through improving conversation skills, from a vantage point of helping not criticising. The approach is designed to support the journey of deepening relationships, particularly those across organisational teams, to ultimately drive higher performance and therefore success. The focus very much balancing not only what goals were achieved, but how they were achieved.

Big Messages/Key Quotes :

  • People rarely like being told things unnecessarily, and this is particularly irritating if it is something you already know. Even when someone is trying to help it does not result in a positive interaction. Much of this can be prevented by learning to ask questions that build mutual respect
  • Using humble inquiry is especially important in the workplace as it can give insight into why some teams perform better than others. In the main, what differentiates great performing teams from okay performers, is the quality of the relationships across the team. Everyone on the pitch communicates well and feels free to express their opinions irrespective of their level in the organisational hierarchy
  • Overall there are four forms of inquiry:
      • Humble inquiry is the ability to gain insights into another person but doing it in a non-threatening and harmonious way i.e. the ability to understand somebody else’s motivations, perspective, opinion and context. This positioning is from an angle of being empathetic and helpful, and not patronising
      • Diagnostic inquiry is geared around influencing an individual’s thought/mental process. This typically looks like answering a question by asking a further question… “do you know the way to Covent Garden station” and the response is “why are you going to Covent Garden”. Some not-so-great conversation can result because of this! Curiosity is great but can be misinterpreted!
      • Confrontational inquiry is whereby an individual inserts their own ideas, “spin”, or viewpoint into the conversation through the form of a leading question. The ability to influence the respondent to see things from your own point of view i.e. “did it make you angry” as opposed to an open question like “how did it feel”. This inquiry can also be helpful, but other conversation elements like tone, timing, words and body language need to relay that this is designed to help
      • Process oriented inquiry is the ability to shift focus away from the question or the conversation itself, back onto the relationship. A typical way in which you would see this is by somebody saying “why are we talking about this”… this is a very powerful approach and technique when it comes to building and deepening relationships, as it has the ability of helping to focus on the relationship as opposed to what is being discussed
  • The focus of navigating conversational questions and using inquiry techniques can sometimes go by the wayside, despite the clear benefit! In the business environment where we see more of a task accomplishment culture, more emphasis is still placed on what was achieved as opposed to how it was done. Much of the promotion processes we see across organisations also tend to focus on the What as opposed to the how, hence driving behaviours to morph accordingly
  • Ego and status can also cloud our ability to see how humble inquiry can play a vital role in driving the business forward. With many organisations, and individuals, getting hung up on who is senior and who is junior can lead to a lot of great ideas and challenges not being aired. Both scenarios only harm the business, and eventually the individuals within it
  • Social status can also get in the way of building positive and enduring relationships. Preoccupation with someone’s level can hinder our ability to operate out of humble inquiry. The concept of the Johari’s window, that is how much we show of ourselves to others can really help in these situations. In the main, the more we open up about who we are to others, the more likely we are to build trust and healthier relationships…but be careful not to over-share!
  • Our ability to successfully engage and connect with others is also dependent upon our own skill in the arena of self-awareness. We can misjudge, misinterpret, and bring bias into the picture, which makes practicing humble inquiry To help manage this the ORJI (Observation, Reaction, Judgment, and Intervention) framework is a tool that can help

Why read this book?

If you find connecting with people hard, or feel you are not making progress on your leadership journey, this is a must read. Leaders are not born, they are made, and one of the fundamental building blocks of leadership is willing followership. People only follow people they trust, respect, and admire…this book gives some great insight into how to achieve this, in a very digestible way. Again, a book that should be read annually to refresh the basics.


Recent Blogs