The gentle art of asking …

Photo credit - Jonathan Simcoe via

Photo credit – Jonathan Simcoe via

Have you ever noticed how often people want to tell you things? Sometimes they launch in, without any inquiry about what you already know or want to know.  Do you notice though, that those aren’t the people you seek to spend more time with. Why is that? 

Edgar Schein explores this in his book on Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling. He proposes that 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 (2013, p. 2)

Schein is a well-known academic whose research and consulting work has focused on organisational effectiveness. He writes about organisational culture, much of which can be shaped by the relationships between people working together.

According to Schein, relationships can go wrong when there is more telling than asking in interactions between people. He suggests we can improve this by doing three things:

  1. Do less telling
  2. Learn to do more asking (through Humble Inquiry)
  3. Do a better job of listening and acknowledging

Why ask instead of tell?
Telling can be perceived as a way of putting someone down. There is an assumption that the person being told, does not know what they are being told and that they ought to. Asking empowers the other person, by asking their view on something indicating it is worth hearing. It also draws the person into the conversation, and into relating to each other.

asking … is really … fundamental … in human relations, and it applies to all of us all the time … What we choose to ask, when we ask, what our underlying attitude is as we ask—all are key to relationship building, to communication, and to task performance
(Schein, 2013, p. 4)

Schein’s concept of humble inquiry is more than just asking questions. It is inquiry derived from interest and curiosity in others. Such interest indicates a desire to build a relationship, and communication flows. Asking questions suggests a vulnerability through needing to know something, and a dependence on someone else providing that knowledge. Schein also suggests the person providing the knowledge, is engaged in positive helping behaviour. These are positive ingredients for building relationships.

Seek first to understand …
This asking rather than telling approach, resonates with the work of Stephen Covey in his book on Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Covey promotes the principle of “seek first to understand, then to be understood”. Similarly, by taking an interest in an ‘other’ person, before claiming knowledge yourself, is the basis for building relationships. Through inquiry (and subsequent listening) you are conveying a message that the other person is worth listening to, and you are interested to know what they know.

Some would suggest this approach is just plain good manners. However, in many situations – especially in hierarchical workplaces – there is a lot of telling, and not so much asking. In these circumstances it is easy to get caught up in the business of telling. Many business case studies are testament to this when they highlight the negative consequences of such behaviour. These include situations where a staff member may have noticed a flaw, an error or a potential hazard, yet may not feel comfortable, willing or likely to be listened to, if they were to raise the issue in a workplace dominated by telling practices.

Asking facilitates learning
Teaching provides a great arena for promoting learning through asking. The expository style teacher who waxes lyrical about their subject area, probably has a lot of knowledge to offer. Generally more learning is gained when questions are asked about what the learners already know, what they want to know and how they think they might acquire that knowledge. As a learning process, it is engaging. Furthermore, learners often solve their own learning needs by thinking about the questions being asked and finding the answers. The key here is to ask effective questions to facilitate thinking.

Jane, a colleague, came to seek my advice about how to develop her team members to have a more problem-solving approach to their work, rather than bringing them. My suggestion was that the next time it happened, she should listen, ask questions and resist the urge to tell (give advice). She did just that and reported back that it took real effort to stick to the asking. As she was asking questions, her direct report was answering them and then stopped, saying, “Oh, I know what to do.” Jane was amazed – at how effective was with the asking not telling approach.

What about you?
What has been your ask/tell experience? What is the one most important thing you have learned about how to ask questions?

Schein, Edgar. 2013. Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling. Berrett-Koehler. San Francisco.

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