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Humble Inquiry
Humble Inquiry – The best way to learn more. American culture prioritizes action, practicality, and competition over courteousness and respect. But there’s a different way. In his popular book, retired MIT professor Edgar H. Schein encourages openness and curiosity about others in the form of humble inquiry. Humble Inquiry is “asking questions to which you […]

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Francis Roberts

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February 22, 2020

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Humble Inquiry – The best way to learn more.

American culture prioritizes action, practicality, and competition over courteousness and respect.

But there’s a different way. In his popular book, retired MIT professor Edgar H. Schein encourages openness and curiosity about others in the form of humble inquiry.

Humble Inquiry is “asking questions to which you do not already know the answer” and “building a relationship based on curiosity and interest in the other person.”

American culture focuses on telling instead of asking. But by telling people what to do, you can offend or demean them. Asking fosters better relationships.When you ask people for their input, you humble yourself and empower them. This nourishes long-term, productive interactions. – [Male Narrator] In “Humble Inquiry”,published by Berrett-Koehler, retired MIT professor Edgar Schein makes a solid case for humility. He explores the way American culture prioritizes action, practicality and competition over courteousness and respect. Schein encourages the art of humbly drawing someone out, of asking questions to which you do not already know the answer,and of building a relationship based on interest in the other person. GetAbstract recommends this powerful book to executives and managers.

When you ask instead of tell, the other person can lead the conversation and that builds trust. Even if you hear something you didn’t want to know, you’ve still learned from the exchange. Telling shuts down communication. People hurrying through the workday do ask questions, but often their questions are biased toward action, and are not humble inquiries. – [Male Narrator] Humility comes in three forms, basic, optional, and hear and now. You practice basic humility when you avoid humiliating another person. Certain cultures have class systems or hierarchies, people born into a particular status level never lose that status. Within such systems, people treat each other with a basic level of respect and civility. – [Female Narrator] Optional humility occurs in cultureswhere people are not granted prestige as a birthright, but rather earn it. When someone’s achievements might humble those who observe them, the observers can choose to be admiring or disdainful, practicing optional humility. – [Male Narrator] You practice here and now humility when you humble yourself and ask for help. People of high status find it challenging to become here and now humble, because that means recognizing that they are dependent on other lower status team members. – [Female Narrator] For inquiry to be truly humble, it must be genuine. When you ask a question, don’t promote your agenda, try to minimize your own preconceptions. Clear your mind at the beginning of a conversation and maximize your listening as the conversation proceeds. Good starting phrases for a humble inquiry include: What’s happening? What brings you here? And, can you give me an example?

Western cultures’ preference for doing and telling is the main inhibitor of humble inquiry. Society in the United States is based on the individual. This mindset considers each person’s rights and freedoms more important than those of a group or society at large. Americans and many other westerners are practical, action-oriented, and individualistic. They value getting the job done over building relationships. Here-and-now humility is hard to achieve in societies so fragmented by rank and status.American society doesn’t readily acknowledge an individual’s dependence on others. – [Narrator] Americans are competitive and want to win. U.S. politicians and salespeoplebuild relationships with their constituents and consumers but only as a means to an end.Americans become impatient doing business with cultures that value relationships more than productivity. They don’t want to sit through get-to-know-you dinners before getting down to brass tacks. In the U.S., status and prestige are gained by task accomplishment,and once you are above someone else, you are licensed to tell them what to do. This causes problems when high achievers are unwilling to listen or learn from lower status individuals. – [Narrator] Americans value telling more than asking because requesting help or clarification denotes weakness. You’re supposed to know what you’re doing,especially if you manage or lead others. Consider the pre-election presidential debates.Observers became more concerned with who won the debate than with the issues the candidates discussed. Americans fundamentally believe life is a competition with clear winners and losers. They have little patience with
to information they think they already know. – [Narrator] However, the culture of the U.S. is changing as people realize that the world is becoming more complex and interdependent. Americans across a range of occupations see how much they rely on their team members. People who trust each other work well together, but first they must slow down and take the time to build the critical foundation of trust.

Researcher Amy Edmondson investigated how cardiac surgical teams worked together on open-heart surgery. At lunch many teams segregate, with professional peers sitting according to rank and status. However, one successful team’s members sat only with each other. This team performed more complex surgical procedures because everyone learned together as a team and eliminated barriers. – [Female Voice] Status, rank, role and internal psychological makeup inhibit humble inquiry. Subordinates and superiors follow their own codes of conduct. Subordinates generally obey rules of deference that govern how they act in front of their superiorswhile superiors generally obey rules of demeanor or appropriate rules of behavior in front of their subordinates. – [Male Voice] Practicing humble inquiry skills will help you in your personal life and at work, especially if you’re a manager or executive. Leaders must acknowledge their subordinates in order to communicate and establish trust. Expand your perception and insight to identify when and where you might do less telling and more asking. You will find yourself battling the anxieties of learning and unlearning.Learning new skills is difficult and may provoke anxiety. Unlearning bad habits and developing good ones is often even harder. – [Female Voice] Relationships can be task-oriented and revolve around transactions that happen when you need something from someone or relationships can be person-oriented when you like each other or share the same interests. Problems arise when boundaries change, such as when task-based relationships become personal. Learn to value personal relationships over task management. Reach out to others. For example, invite your work colleagues to lunch to get to know them better. – [Male Voice] Slow down and change tempo. Develop greater awareness of yourself and your surroundings. Use humble inquiry on yourself. Ask, “What is going on here? “What would be the appropriate thing to do? “What am I thinking and feeling and wanting?” Consider whom you depend on and who depends on you. Practice mindfulness. Learning a new skill, drawing, painting, acting, or the like, will humble you and broaden your horizons. Experiencing a new culture through travelpolishes your humble inquiry skills.