Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling

by Edgar H. Schein (1928-2023)

Retired MIT Sloan School of Management professor Edgar Schein asserts, “Without good upward communication, organizations can be neither effective nor safe… Your organization may be underperforming because various employees or groups do not recognize the degree to which they are, in fact, interdependent.” The gist of this book is about creating a trusting environment with open communication across hierarchical boundaries. This entails less telling, more asking, and better listening.

“The U.S. culture is strongly built on the tacit assumptions of pragmatism, individualism, and status through achievement… Given those cultural biases, doing and telling are inevitably valued more than asking and relationship building. However, as tasks become more complex and interdependent, collaboration, teamwork, and relationship building will become more necessary. That, in turn, will require leaders to become more skilled in humble inquiry.”

Humble inquiry is the skill and the 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.”

“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.”

“In a complex and interdependent world… we tout teamwork and use lots of different athletic analogies, but I choose the seesaw and the relay race to make the point that often it is necessary for everyone to do their part. For everyone to do their part appropriately requires good communication; good communication requires building a trusting relationship; and building a trusting relationship requires humble inquiry.”

“Trust in the context of a conversation is believing that the other person will acknowledge me, not take advantage of me, not embarrass or humiliate me, tell me the truth, and, in the broader context, not cheat me, work on my behalf, and support the goals we have agreed to… We know intuitively and from experience that we work better in a complex interdependent task with someone we know and trust.”

Our decisions are only as good as the data or assumptions on which they are based. “The reason asking is a strength rather than a weakness is that it provides a better chance of figuring out what is actually going on before acting… Humble Inquiry is one reliable way of gathering data… Knee-jerk reactions that get us into trouble are interventions that are judgments based on incorrect data, not necessarily bad judgments.”

“We have to avoid steering the conversation inadvertently… Humble inquiry maximizes my curiosity and interest in the other person and minimizes bias and preconceptions about the other person. I want to… ask for information in the least biased and threatening way. I do not want to lead the other person or put him or her into a position of having to give a socially acceptable response.”

“Maximize your listening… The most important diagnostic that the other person will use to decide whether or not you are interested is not only what you ask but also how well you hear the response. Your attitude and motive will then reveal themselves in your further questions and responses as the conversation proceeds.”

“When we don’t get acknowledgement or feel that we are giving more than we are getting out of conversations or feel talked down to, we become anxious, disrespected, and humiliated. Humble inquiry should be a reliable way to avoid these negative results in a conversation.”

“What we ask, how we ask it, where we ask it, and when we ask it all matter… Sometimes we display through body language and silence a curiosity and level of interest that gets the other person talking even when we have said nothing.”

“I find that the insincere boss is spotted very quickly and often resented. I suspect, therefore, that if I am not really interested, the other person will sense it, no matter how I phrase my questions.”

“A timely open question is sometimes all that is needed to start effective problem solving.” When someone is being too general, a good approach is to ask for an example.

“When a question is asked in a group setting, it is important to impose a rule that everyone gets to answer the questions before back-and-forth discussion is allowed.”

“Only by making the subordinate feel psychologically safe can the superior hope to get the information and help needed. If they share the same superordinate goals, such as winning the relay race, keeping patients safe, and keeping the nuclear plant from having an accident, that will help but never be enough. Subordinates are always in a vulnerable position and must, therefore, first be reassured before they will fully commit to open communication and collaboration.”

“In high-hazard industries, collaboration, open communication, and mutual help become not only a matter of effective performance but also the key to safety, because the mutual respect should include willingness to communicate openly across the hierarchical boundaries… In airplane crashes and chemical industry accidents, in the infrequent but serious nuclear plan 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 it was overridden.”

“There is growing recognition that the complex work of today is better likened to improvisation theater and jazz bands than to formal bureaucratic models of organization.”

Throughout the book the author capitalizes “Humble Inquiry” as if it is a proper noun. I found that distracting, so I did not follow that style in this review.

Schein, Edgar H. Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2014. Buy from

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