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Humble Inquiry

The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling

Edgar Schein

In high-hazard industries (flying, chemicals etc) where safety paramount issue, need ways to make sure people communicate across hierarchies. Too often find that junior staff knew vital info but either it wasn't shared because of intimidation, or it was ignored.

Management always say "My door is always open" but when you talk to juniors you find that when they've tried they get either a hostile response or a brushoff, and so get the message that boss doesn't want to hear bad news. So they settle for risky alternatives rather than upset the boss.

Doctors feel free to yell at nurses; engage patients in one-way conversations in which they ask just enough questions to jump to a conclusion then start telling patient what to do.

Thing that builds a relationship is asking the right questions, particularly when it is the higher-ranking person doing the asking.

If you are told something you already know, you get irritated. But if you are asked a Q, you get temporarily empowered - you know something the other doesn't.

We are biased towards telling bc we live in a pragmatic problem-solving society that values knowing things.

Two types of doctor - one is interested in you as a person (asks for lots of details about history and lifestyle), the other sees you as just a case number and tells you what he is going to do.

Never ask "How are you?" bc always get scripted "Fine" reply. But if ask "How are things going?" might get a different answer.

"How did you feel about that?" and "Why do you think they did that?" (but always "Is that too personal?")

"What have you tried so far?" and "What are you going to do next?"

American society - instead of admiring relationships, we value individual competitiveness - outdo each other conversationally or sell people stuff they do not need. We breed mistrust of strangers, but don't have any formulas for building or testing trust.

When we deal with people in other cultures that consider relationships to be intrinsic by building trust first, we get impatient at sitting down to relationship-building dinners before getting down to 'real' work.

Being a manager is about "telling everyone else what to do". To ask a subordinate "What should we do?" is to abdicate responsibility. But today's world so complex that no-one can know everything.

We still live in Stephen Potter's world of gamesmanship and one-upmanship.

Presidential debates evaluated on basis of who looked/sounded most Presidential, not who gave best analysis.

Before we give advice, do we stop to ask whether the person has already thought of that themselves?

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