The art of asking instead of telling, the humble inquiry.


I wrote a blog before Christmas, which started to talk about dialogue with some loose connections to collaboration and innovation. The blog got great feedback, probably my best yet, so fuelled by positive feedback and further reflection I wish to continue the theme.

This blog was stimulated having stumbled upon a book by Edger H Schein – Helping. I am a fan of Schein and his work on process consulting and OD so duly brought the book. In the early pages, he talks about moving from our obsession in management to operate in a “tell” culture where we are too eager and rewarded for voicing our opinions to an “ask” culture. In those early pages the following definition shouted out at me:

“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”.

So what drew me to this definition? My work is largely based on coaching, leadership development and psychometric and behavioural feedback, and when I reflect on my work over the past 10 years, what I notice and often find myself feeding back or questioning is “I wonder what response you would have got if you had asked a question?”

For me this is not some simplistic you need to ask more questions blog, a bit like the coaches who say that you should only ask questions mantra. No the key for me is in Schein’s comment that’s its about curiosity, and for me, possibly more important, intent.

In my opinion, it’s the intent behind the action that’s more important than the action itself. If I am genuinely curious and interested in your thoughts, opinions and feelings, and do so because I want to build the relationship or improve something then whether I ask you a question, share my own thoughts, or tell you something then I’m practicing inquiry. My intent is to make something better for both of us, and that’s what drives my behaviour.

One of the behavioural competency frameworks I work with has a competency called “enabling openness”, and the competency is described over 5 levels. Level 1 is negative use of the behaviour, and Level 5 is the strategic use of the behaviour which essentially means that you use the behaviour in such a way that encourages others to use it, and that the practice becomes embedded in the way an organisation uses it. More than just words it’s about bringing it to life everyday and consistently.

The building block of the behaviour is the ability to ask open questions, to summarise and paraphrase in order to show they have understood the other person. We might call that empathy?

But for me what is more fundamental, is if we don’t practice this behaviour, with the intent to be curious, then how can we collaborate, be creative, innovate and facilitate our teams to empower them and dare I say the word “engage them”. Worse still, we wont make our businesses and organisations better, because after all that’s what pays our wages.

So using a phrase from the 90’s. Maybe its time to get back to basics and lets all of us seek to ask rather than to be too quick to tell.

Maybe we might even create something we could not have possibly imagined or dared before. Who knows?


2 thoughts on “The art of asking instead of telling, the humble inquiry.

  1. Nice blog Ian. Curiosity is one of our greatest traits as humans. The desire to find your me because you are interested serves bit only personal growth but our ability to serve our customers

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