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Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling Paperback – September 2, 2013
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"Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress"
Is the world really falling apart? Is the ideal of progress obsolete? Cognitive scientist and public intellectual Steven Pinker urges us to step back from the gory headlines and prophecies of doom, and instead, follow the data: In seventy-five jaw-dropping graphs, Pinker shows that life, health, prosperity, safety, peace, knowledge, and happiness are on the rise. Learn more
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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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At the beginning of the book, the author presents many examples and ideas about the way we interact with friends, strangers, subordinates, peers and superiors. Schein also illustrates how different aspects of our lives such as ethnicity, class, nationality or personality can influence and change the communication process. Schein points out how most of the problems at the workplace can be avoided or solved by using the proper communication style.
Most interesting was the descriptions of the US culture as one as individualistic, pragmatic and competitive where teamwork is touted as important but instead individual accomplishments are rewarded. The American reader will nod along to Schein’s points that Americans feel they can fix anything; that committees and meetings are a waste of time; and that we have a cultural mistrust of strangers. This cultural awareness can help the reader avoid these reactions in the future.
Schein embarks to show how we live in a culture of telling where people do not engage with others on a personal level. He also explains that the aforementioned cultural problems could be addressed with an improvement in our communication style. He challenges the reader to start by asking for feedback rather than telling one’s opinions. He describes in the book that, in our current world of technology and global interaction, we cannot hope to understand and work with different people if we don’t know how to build relationships. They must be based on mutual respect and the recognition that others have knowledge that we need to complete tasks.
The structure of the book is difficult to follow. Often, there are too many examples that are so detailed that the reader loses the focus of the main topic. It would be helpful if one overarching example or case study was used throughout the book to tie the concepts back to a single scenario. Additionally, the examples are also outdated. In one scenario, a person is lost and asks for directions: visualizing the unlikely scenario of a person driving without a GPS in a world of smartphones distracted from the point being made. In future editions, the examples should be updated to reduce this distraction factor.
There also seemed to be some content that was included in the book that was not fully developed. Chapter 3 compares different types of inquiry to the Humble Inquiry. Where the other chapters seem to come together, this one stands apart from the others in relevance. The other types of inquiries referenced (diagnostic, confrontational and process-oriented) were not clearly defined and stood as points of confusion for the reader on why it was included since the rest of the book did not incorporate them into the examples or points of reference.
Also, the content became repetitive, especially in the final chapters. Although the concept of Humble Inquiry is helpful, it could have been presented more concisely and included a simple framework that allows the reader to develop Humble Inquiry skills and better apply the art of asking over telling.
With a common sense approach, this is a helpful book that reminds the reader to stop being a taskmaster and instead to develop relationships to foster a better, more efficient working environment.
As the title indicates, Humble Inquiry is about why, and under what circumstances, it is better to ask than to “tell.” Humble inquiry means making ourselves vulnerable in the context of a culture that requires that we not disclose gaps in our knowledge or competencies, lest we lose the respect of those below us, if not the confidence of those above us, in society’s real and imagined hierarchies of status and power. It means asking questions when we don’t have enough information to make a sound decision, and being OK with that. To do so is, in some sense, to “humble” oneself. That this state is not easy to attain is massively obvious in the behavior of newly promoted managers. The same could be said of more experienced managers.
Professor Schein argues that it is hard to practice humble inquiry in American society because of its embedded cultural barriers. He addresses these barriers with precision, economy, and the confidence that comes from half a century of theoretically informed practice, occasional errors of interpretation, great and small, and the insights that must have come from his reflections upon them. This treatment is not a “scatter-gun” approach to characterizing cultural barriers; in his treatment, he captures all the essential ones, no more, no less. Thus, if one were a trainer or mentor, one way to bring learners to a state in which humble inquiry could occur would be to engage them in conversations about the barriers that we all experience, “externally” and “internally,” to its practice. In making the specific cultural assumptions that inhibit humble inquiry visible, Schein makes them discussable. When they are discussable, it becomes possible to suspend and replace them by other rules of action.
Humble Inquiry is not a “how-to-do-it” book, though it does contain good examples of the thinking behind, and the practice of, humble inquiry. The deeper message, I believe, is its celebration of the practical value of genuine curiosity. Reading and discussing the contents of this book would raise awareness of our culture’s preference for getting things done over building relationships, of telling over asking, and of the opportunities—especially those associated with business efficiency—that are missed because of those preferences. That is why I would use this book as a training framework, especially for newly promoted managers, those most in jeopardy of intoxication by the elixir of power.
This has truly helped me reflect and learn from some events in my career yet much more then that continue a new journey where as an Agile Coach I am asked to help others. This often starts with understanding new concepts and rituals for work teams who often echo the challenge being and underlying command and control management style that is often supported by an outdated structure of thinking rooted in Scientific Management that helped much of development in the industrial age (which by the way Peter Senge points out hasn't ended with coming of the so called "information age". In fact this is just continuation of the industrial age, with programmed machines doing much of the work to scale production)
This book and the book on "Helping" provides the formal basis of some key ideas I had picked when having attended some training courses, and much more then the training events these two books have helped me in my journey when coaching teams and individuals.
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