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Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling Paperback – September 2, 2013
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“An invaluable guide for a consultant trying to understand and untangle system and interpersonal knots. Written with a beguiling simplicity and clarity, it is laden with wisdom and practicality.”
—Irvin Yalom, MD, Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry, Stanford University
“The lessons contained in this deceptively simple book reach beyond the author’s experience gained from a lifetime of consultation to organizations of all sizes and shapes. It provides life lessons for us all. If, as a result of reading this book, you begin to practice the art of humble asking, you will have taken an important step toward living wisely.”
—Samuel Jay Keyser, Peter de Florez Professor Emeritus, MIT
“This book seriously challenges leaders to re-examine the emphasis on task orientation and ‘telling’ subordinates how best to do their jobs. Humble Inquiry increases organizational capacity to learn more from cross-cultural teamwork, reduces stress, and increases organizational engagement and productivity.”
—Jyotsna Sanzgiri, MBA, PhD, Professor, California School of Professional Psychology, Alliant International University
“This book is particularly important for leaders who in these complex times need advice and tools for building trust in their relationships with subordinates individually or in teams.”
—Danica Purg, President, IEDC-Bled School of Management, Bled, Slovenia
“This book is an exercise in inquiry by a recognized master of humble insight.”
—Art Kleiner, Editor-in-Chief, Booz & Company/strategy+business
“Ed Schein has provided a new and thoughtful reframing of interpersonal dynamics through the notion of Humble Inquiry. This short book is packed with insights as Schein rigorously explores the impact of his ideas in his usually clear and readable style.”
—Michael Brimm, Professor of Organizational Behavior, INSEAD Europe
“Humble Inquiry is an elegant treatment of how to go about building and sustaining solid, trusting relationships in or out of the workplace. A masterful take on a critical human skill too infrequently practiced.”
—John Van Maanen, Erwin Schell Professor of Management and Professor of Organization Studies, MIT
“A fast read and full of insight! Schein uses stories from his personal life and his successful career as a process consultant that pointedly ask, ‘How willing are you to cast aside hierarchy? How personal are you willing to be?’ Considering the cultural, occupational, generational, and gender communication barriers we face every day, Humble Inquiry proposes a very practical, nonthreatening approach to bridging those gaps and increasing the mutual understanding that leads to operational excellence.”
—Rosa Antonia Carrillo, MSOD, safety leadership consultant
“A remarkably valuable guide for anyone interested in leading more effectively and building strong relationships. Ed Schein presents vivid examples grounded in a lifetime of experience as husband, father, teacher, administrator, and consultant.”
—Robert B. McKersie, Professor Emeritus, Sloan School of Management, MIT
“Ed Schein has an eye for bold yet subtle insights into the big picture and a knack for writing about them clearly. Humble Inquiry—like his previous book Helping—shows that he is equally talented at bringing fresh thinking to well-trodden ground.”
—Grady McGonagill, EdD, Principal, McGonagill Consulting
“What did I gain from reading Humble Inquiry? I became more aware of the subtle but powerful ways we affect each other as we talk and how the right kind of questions can dramatically improve the quality and efficiency of communication, with benefits that range from increased patient safety and satisfaction to employee motivation and morale to organizational performance. You can’t afford to not know about this.”
—Anthony Suchman, MD, MA, University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry
“With the world as his classroom, Ed Schein continues to guide us through modern day chaos with the powerful behaviors of Helping and Humble Inquiry. This is a must-read for anyone who truly wishes to achieve important goals!”
—Marjorie M. Godfrey, Codirector, The Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy & Clinical Practice Microsystem Academy
“I have had the privilege of working with Ed Schein. Reading Humble Inquiry I could hear his voice asking me those humble questions that joined us in a mutual search for the answer. His book distills what he has learned and practiced in a lifetime of helping high-powered leaders be even more successful.”
—Anthony F. Earley, Jr., Chairman, CEO and President, PG&E Corporation
“Schein helps us understand the importance of transcending hierarchy and authority to build authentic relationships predicated on trust and respect. Humble iInquiry is a powerful approach to building safe environments for our people and, ultimately, our patients.”
—Gary S. Kaplan MD, Chairman and CEO, Virginia Mason Health System
“Quiet wisdom from an expert, enlivened by personal examples. Insightful and easy to read, it made me look again at my own behavior in my relationships, both at work and in the home.”
From one of the true giants in organizational development, career development and organizational psychology comes a simple and effective technique for building more positive relationships―particularly between people of different status―that will lead to more honest and open interactions and stronger organizations.
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The challenge with the book is that it relies more on anecdotes and offers little in the form of a structured plan. If you read this book expecting some sort of framework or plan to strengthen your humble inquiry muscle, you'll be a bit disappointed. It seems that Edgar's videos are far more effective at communicating his message - The book would have benefitted from more crisp editing and structure. In some sense, I think the book will benefit from talking the author's advise and structuring around the 'Ask don't tell' model ..maybe a workbook structure that walked you through questions and then anecdotes to make specific points , will work better.
If you've done any reading on getting beyond ego, conflict resolution, or non-violent communication, much of the material in this book won't be new to you. For example, Schein describes the need for an attitude of genuine interest and curiosity, and describes ways to develop that attitude (e.g., reflection, mindfulness, artistic endeavors, building relationships). He discusses the importance of relationships, trust, vulnerability, and understanding feelings rather than suppressing them.
What I found most interesting was his description of U.S. and management cultures, and the consequences they produce. He describes our culture as individualistic, competitive, optimistic, and pragmatic. Though we often espouse teamwork, in actuality we reward individualism. Overlain on that is our "culture of tell" - managers are supposed to know what to do, not ask questions. And subordinates often don't feel safe enough to speak up, so critical information gets withheld.
If you're interested in this topic, I recommend this video interview with Schein on Culture, Leadership, & Humble Inquiry: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7MwebWXtKBs
The first 12 ½ minutes were the most interesting to me. Schein talks about why upward communication is faulty and how that can yield safety problems, why employees should be treated like human beings, why the culture of "tell" doesn't work in a complex environment, and why managers should aim to be the orchestrator and not the "boss".
Schein clearly articulates the many benefits of his “Humble Inquiry” method through relational examples and situational application across disciplines. To start, he defines what exactly “Humble Inquiry” is, the art of asking with “here and now humility” instead of telling in relationships. Schein defines three types of humility: basic humility, optional humility, and here and now humility. The other key facet of this perspective is the inquiry aspect. Schein insists that inquiry is both “an art and a science”. While inquiry and question formulation has been thoroughly researched, daily it is often overlooked within human interaction.
Throughout the book, Schein provides examples of opportunities for “Humble Inquiry”, as well as missed opportunities. Through personal life examples in the text, we can see that “what we ask, how we ask it, where we ask it, and when we ask it all matter” (pg. 19). Whether the situation is peer to peer, professor to student, CEO to Human Resources, or oncologist to patient, relationships are strengthened through humble inquiry. This tactic of building relationships increases trust amongst individuals.
Schein’s writing style is simple enough for anyone to grasp the concept of the “Humble Inquiry”. He uses many examples throughout the novel to help bolster his argument. These examples show how a conversation can change for the better by using the “Humble Inquiry” outlook. Additionally, by contrasting Humble Inquiry with other kinds of inquiry, Schein can further convey the benefits of humble inquiry in a variety of different settings.
By conveying the message that the “Humble Inquiry” is an attitude, Schein suggests that this concept is a lifestyle change. A change that will help build relationships and create a more thoughtful and productive work environment. Schein conveys the point that by “telling”, we suggest that the other person did not know what we are trying to tell them. Instead, by “asking”, we can communicate the same message while empowering the other person by making it seem as if they assisted in reaching the proposed verdict or conclusion. Schein proposes that everyone, not just managers and executives, take on this attitude. His “Ask don’t tell” model can be just as beneficial to subordinates as it can be to leaders
Schein also gives practical advice on developing the attitude of Humble Inquiry in three main domains: 1) Personal life, to enable dealing with increasing culture diversity; 2) Organizations, to identify needs for collaboration among interdependent work units and to facilitate such collaboration; and 3) Role as leader or manager, to create the relationships and the climate to promote open communication needed for effective task performance (pg. 99).
In summary, Schein’s ability to express the benefits of the “Humble Inquiry” makes the read very worthwhile. Any workplace can use the “Humble Inquiry” to increase trust, inspire coworkers, and create stronger bonds with each other. In his final thought, Schein, explains that we will all find ourselves from time to time “in situations that require innovation and some risk taking.” (pg 110) It is in these moments that Schein challenges us to “not succumb to telling, but to take charge with Humble Inquiry.” (pg. 110). In a modern workplace culture where “tell”, not ask is all too often the norm, Schein’s book would be a fantastic resource for any company or individual that wants to take their relationships and organization to the next level.