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Review: The Art of the Humble Inquiry

humble-inquiryHumble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling
Edgar H Schein

Edgar Schein says we have a cultural issue. We like to tell people what we think, rather than asking them what they’re trying to tell us. Overall, especially in the world of information technology, I tend to agree. To counter this problem, he suggests that we perfect the art of the humble inquiry — redirecting our thinking from the immediate solution that comes to mind, or even from the question that was asked, and trying to get to the what the person we’re talking to is actually asking.

He gives numerous examples throughout the book; perhaps my favorite is of the person who asked stopped their car while he was doing yard work to ask directions to a particular street. Rather than answering, he asked where they were trying to get to. They were, in fact, off course for their original plan, but he directed them down a different path that got them there faster than if they’d turned around and found their way back to that original path. This is a perfect example of asking returning a specific question with a larger question — an authentic request for information that turns the situation from one of frustration into one of getting to the original goal.

The author also provides a useful section on how to differentiate between four kinds of questions, among which is the humble inquiry. There are times when it makes sense to lead someone we’re interacting with through questions, and others when it’s important to gain more information rather than making a decision. What’s never okay is the “gotcha question,” a form of attack in the guise of a question. While the author doesn’t cover it, it’s also never okay to hit someone with a complex question or a question predicated in a false dichotomy — two things that are all too common in our modern sound bite culture. He also gives a four part loop for decision making that’s very similar, but slightly different from, the OODA loop.

There are some parts of the book I didn’t find quite so useful, though, primarily in the last few chapters where the author moves off into psychology; much of this is based on views of the human psyche I don’t really accept, nor consider true (should I have phrased that in the form of a question?). Overall, though, this is a good, short, read on learning how to stop trying to take control of every situation, and instead learning to ask what the person who’s asking you really wants. I’d give it 4 stars, overall.

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