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Jamie Lawrence


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Book review: Humble Inquiry by Edgar Schein


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Title: Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling
Author: Edgar Schein
ISBN: 978-1609949815
Reviewer: David Evans, Burn Bridge Associates
Reviewer’s rating: 4 out of 5

Ed Schein, an academic with a 50-year distinguished record in organisational psychology, has written a hugely-reflective book that brings to bear the rich experience arising from his pioneering career. He describes the purpose of the book as being to support the development of positive relationships and he defines ‘humble inquiry’ as “the fine art of drawing someone out, asking questions to which you do not already know the answer, of building a relationship based on curiosity and interest to the other person”.

The book is, apparently, for the general reader but it has particular relevance to people in leadership roles. Using numerous examples from the workplace and personal life, Schein illustrates the value of great inquiry and the frustration that results from poor or inappropriate questioning. He summarises the best approach to humble inquiry as being: to do less telling, learn to do more asking and do a better job of listening. So far, so – well – obvious.

The author proposes three kinds of humility: basic humility is that which is conditioned by our upbringing and culture; optional humility is that which is achieved though one’s accomplishments; and, here-and-now humility is how one feels when being dependent on someone else. As he goes into here-and-now humility in more depth, Schein develops a discussion about position-power, the risks of telling, and the power of superiors recognising their sense of dependency on those lower down the hierarchy to deliver the agreed objectives.

Schein describes how the act of telling effectively puts people down because it implies a certain ignorance in the other person. Asking, on the other hand, temporarily empowers the other person and it also temporarily places the inquirer in a vulnerable position: this is a building block in relationship-building through the development of trust. Vulnerability also arouses positive helping behaviours which can be recognised through body language, silence and effective choice of words. And, temporary dependency and vulnerability creates psychological safety. He develops the definition of inquiry and suggests that it derives from an attitude of interest and curiosity.

Schein embarks on a detailed discussion of four types of inquiry; humble inquiry, diagnostic inquiry, confrontational inquiry and process-oriented inquiry. The first is situational, culturally-contexted and requires those involved to understand the ‘rules of engagement’. Diagnostic inquiry occurs when curiosity has been piqued and more in-depth inquiry is appropriate: this type of inquiry influences the other’s mental process because the questioner is taking greater control of the process. Confrontational inquiry means that the questioner is inserting their ideas in the form of a question, using feeling and reactions, causes and motives, action orientation and systemic focus. Process-orientated inquiry is about checking in on how the inquiry process is proceeding: this can be humble, diagnostic or confrontational.

Schein spends three chapters describing the dangers and downsides of the ‘tell’ culture (a remarkably acerbic attack on US culture), the inhibiting factors of role, rank and status and the effect of our own limiting thoughts and attitudes (here, he uses a cycle of observation, reaction, judgement and intervention to demonstrate how we process what we experience, and how this processing can either liberate or constrain us). He concludes the book with a chapter on attitude-development, focussing on slowing down and varying our personal pace, being more self-reflective, becoming more mindful (about our present state and context) and being more personally expansive (‘engaging the artist within you’).

His concluding comment – “Some of us are formal leaders; most of us just have leadership thrust upon us from time to time by the situations we find ourselves in. The ultimate challenge is for you to discover that at those moments you should not succumb to telling but to take charge with Humble Inquiry” – really encapsulates the style and essence of the book. It is about a change in style and approach, from one that is hectoring and abrasive to one that enables everyone to give of their best, every day.

I really like this book: it is written in a flowing and easy-read style. It exudes subtlety and intimacy and talks to our personal style and approach. And it demands the reader to really interrogate their own approach to handling situations, interaction and people. Its self-reflective manner exemplifies the messages that come through clearly in the content. At 110 pages this does not demand a large commitment to reading it; its gently-provocative approach ensures some personal learning is likely. This is unlikely to be on a must-read list for HR practitioners; however, it adds to our personal stock of knowledge about coaching, empathy and leadership.

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Jamie Lawrence

Insights Director

Read more from Jamie Lawrence

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