Edgar Schein: Humble Inquiry (2013)

A Systems Library, Vol. 10

Photo by Etienne Boulanger on Unsplash

Humble Inquiry is particularly important given that organisations and communities find themselves drifting towards handling complex interdependent tasks that cannot be accomplished by solitary experts.

The idea behind Humble Inquiry is simple enough but its practice is fraught with difficulties. Our culture of task-orientedness and one-upmanship steers us away from an humble stance in organisational and community life. In multi-cultural groups or in teams where there are socially encoded status differences it requires genuine sensitivity to put Humble Inquiry into practice without upsetting people. Also we need to be mindful of the way we project ourselves to the outside world. Perceptual biases and the variety of conscious and unconscious signals that play out in interpersonal communication can easily put us on the wrong foot when it comes to building trust.

Here I found Schein’s distinction between different forms of inquiry to be very helpful:

Humble Inquiry is a way of drawing information from your interlocutor that tries to minimise the inquirer’s own ideas, preconceptions and bias. The intention is to clear the mind, accept ignorance and stretch the ability to listen as the conversation proceeds.

Process-oriented inquiry shifts the conversational focus away from the substance onto the here-and-now interaction. It invites to reflect on the quality of the interaction.

Diagnostic inquiry seeks to understand, to steer the conversation and to influence the other person’s mental process.

Confrontational inquiry foregrounds the inquirer’s own ideas. The inquirer is taking charge of both the process and content of the conversation.

Humble Inquiry comes across differently depending on the situation. As a result it is not desirable to try to develop standard categories of questions that do or do not qualify as Humble Inquiry.

In my personal communication style I tend to gravitate quickly to a form of diagnostic inquiry. Schein assures me that this can work as Humble Inquiry as long as I’m mindful of the specific context in which I’m asking the questions and the state of the relationship with my interlocutor. Even confrontational questions can be humble if the motive is to be genuinely helpful and the relationship has enough trust built up to allow the other to be feel helped rather than confronted.

Recognising these situational cues is easier said than done. A successful practice of Humble Inquiry requires us to slow down, observe carefully and take stock of the situation we find ourselves in. Here Schein briefly connects to Ellen Langer’s work on mindfulness. He also suggests to cultivate a creative habit to discipline ourselves in creating something new that is not ego expanding.

I wish there were more of these kinds of books: to the point, succinct, accessible, conceptually rich and practical. Not a book to put back on the shelves but to keep in our satchel for constant reference and validation.



Facilitator @ shiftN ⎹ Post-disciplinary researcher @ Newrope, ETH Zürich ⎹ How to create spaces were life is able to unfold, and is experienced as life?

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Philippe Vandenbroeck

Facilitator @ shiftN ⎹ Post-disciplinary researcher @ Newrope, ETH Zürich ⎹ How to create spaces were life is able to unfold, and is experienced as life?