Humble Inquiry: Ask, don’t tell

From The Optimist Magazine
Summer 2014

All too often, leaders think their job is to tell others what to do. But true leadership means asking questions.

The other day I was admiring an unusual bunch of mushrooms that had grown after a heavy rain when a lady walking her dog chose to stop and tell me in a loud voice, “Some of those are poisonous, you know.” I replied, “I know,” to which she added, “Some of them can kill you, you know.”

What struck me was how her need to tell not only made it difficult to respond in a positive manner, but it also offended me. I realized that her tone and her telling approach prevented the building of a positive relationship and made further communication awkward. Her motivation might have been to help me, yet I found it unhelpful and wished that she had asked me a question, either at the beginning or after I said “I know,” instead of trying to tell me something more.

Why is it so important to learn to ask better questions that help to build positive relationships? Because in an increasingly complex, interdependent and culturally diverse world, we cannot hope to understand and work with people from different occupational, professional and national cultures if we do not know how to ask questions and build relationships that are based on mutual respect and the recognition that others know things that we may need to know in order to get a job done. But not all questions are equivalent. I have come to believe that we need to learn a particular form of questioning that I call “Humble Inquiry,” and that can be defined as follows:

Humble Inquiry is the fine 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.

The professional motivation to explore Humble Inquiry more extensively comes from the insights I have gained over the past fifty years of consulting with various kinds of organizations. Especially in the high-hazard industries in which the problems of safety are paramount, I have learned that good relations and reliable communication across hierarchic boundaries are crucial. In airplane crashes and chemical industry accidents, in the infrequent but serious nuclear plant accidents, in the NASA Challenger and Columbia disasters, and in the British Petroleum Gulf spill, a common finding is that lower-ranking employees had information that would have prevented or lessened the consequences of the accident, but either it was not passed up to higher levels or it was ignored or overridden.

When I talk to senior managers, they always assure me that they are open, that they want to hear from their subordinates and that they take the information seriously. However, when I talk to the subordinates in those same organizations, they tell me that either they do not feel safe bringing bad news to their bosses or they’ve tried but never got any response or even acknowledgment, so they concluded that their input wasn’t welcome and gave up. Shockingly often, they settled for risky alternatives rather than upset their bosses with potentially bad news.

It struck me that what is missing in all of these situations is a climate in which lower-level employees feel safe to bring up issues that need to be addressed, information that would reduce the likelihood of accidents and, in health care, mistakes that harm patients. How does one produce a climate in which people will speak up, bring up information that is safety-related and even correct superiors or those of higher status when they are about to make a mistake?

The answer runs counter to some important aspects of U.S. culture: We must become better at asking and do less telling in a culture that overvalues telling. It has always bothered me how even ordinary conversations tend to be defined by what we tell rather than by what we ask. Questions are taken for granted rather than given a starring role in the human drama. Yet all my teaching and consulting experience has taught me that what builds a relationship, what solves problems, what moves things forward, is asking the right questions. In particular, it is the higher-ranking leaders who must learn the art of Humble Inquiry as a first step in creating a climate of openness.

We take it for granted that telling is more valued than asking. Asking the right questions is valued, but asking in general is not. To ask is to reveal ignorance and weakness. Knowing things is highly valued, and telling people what we know is almost automatic, because we have made it habitual in most situations. We are especially prone to telling when we have been empowered by someone else’s question or when we have been formally promoted into a position of power. I once asked a group of management students what it meant to them to be promoted to “manager.” They said without hesitation, “It means I can now tell others what to do.”

Of course, the dangerous and hidden assumption in that dictum is that once people are promoted, they will then know what to do. The idea that the manager might come to a subordinate and ask, “What should we do?” would be considered abdication, failure to fulfill your role. If you are a manager or a leader, you are supposed to know what to do, or at least appear to know.

We all live in a culture of tell, and we find it difficult to ask, especially to ask in a humble way. What is so wrong with telling? The short answer is a sociological one. 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. Often when I am told something that I did not ask about, I find that I already know that and wonder why the person assumed that I didn’t. When I am told things that I already know or have thought of, at the minimum I get impatient, and at the maximum I get offended. The fact that the other person says, “But I was only trying to help—you might not have thought of it” does not end up being helpful or reassuring.

On the other hand, 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 know or want to know. It draws the other person into the situation and into the driver’s seat; it enables the other person to help or hurt me and thereby opens the door to building a relationship. If I don’t care about communicating or building a relationship with the other person, then telling is fine. But if part of the goal of the conversation is to improve communication and build a relationship, then telling is more risky than asking.

A conversation that leads to a relationship has to be sociologically equitable and balanced. If I want to build a relationship, I have to begin by investing something in it. Humble Inquiry is investing by spending some of my attention up front. My question is conveying to the other person, “I am prepared to listen to you and am making myself vulnerable to you.” I will get a return on my investment if what the other person tells me is something I did not know before and needed to know. I will then appreciate being told something new, and a relationship can begin to develop through successive cycles of being told something in response to asking.

Humble Inquiry has special significance for people in leadership roles, because the art of questioning becomes more difficult as status increases. Our culture emphasizes that leaders must be wiser, set direction and articulate values, all of which predisposes them to tell rather than ask. Yet it is leaders who need Humble Inquiry most, because complex interdependent tasks require building positive, trusting relationships with subordinates to facilitate good upward communication. And without good upward communication, organizations can be neither effective nor safe.

All of us find ourselves from time to time in situations that require innovation and some risk taking. 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 to discover that at those moments you should not succumb to telling, but take charge with Humble Inquiry. 

This is an excerpt from Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling (Berrett-Koehler), by Edgar Schein. Schein is the Society of Sloan Fellows professor of management emeritus and an expert in the field of organizational development.


A humbler way to control expenses

When I was the chair of my department of 15 professors, I got a note from my dean that our phone costs were way out of line. I was told that I should find out what the problem was and get the costs down. I received a packet of information, which provided a list of all the calls made by each faculty member, presumably to help me locate the problem persons and get them into line. I had a few options:

Option 1 Go over with each professor her or his list of calls and find out which ones were legitimate and which were not.

Option 2 Go over the list myself, locate cases that looked out of line to me, and selectively call faculty members for explanations.

Option 3 (Humble Inquiry) I asked my secretary to send each faculty member his or her list of calls, accompanied by my memo saying that the dean had told me that our costs were out of line. The memo then asked each faculty member to look at her or his own list of calls to determine whether he or she had calls that should have been on other accounts. Though it was quite prescriptive, it was, in effect, asking them to help me in solving the dean’s problem of cost overruns.

The method I ended up with did lead to several faculty letting me know that they had found out that some graduate students had made all kinds of long-distance calls that should not have been on the department account. I felt good that they could come to me to tell me what they were doing rather than my having to ask them to tell me what they were doing. | E.S.

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