Effective Communication Through Humble Inquiry – Book Review

Humble Inquiry by Edgar H. Schein book cover

Last year my focus was on transforming my life. I became interested in how to bring the best out in others and to improve trust and communication in groups. Then late last year I read Humble Inquiry (on Book Depository) by Edgar H. Schein. I really enjoyed it. The simple message in the title ‘Humble Inquiry: The gentle art of asking instead of telling’ attracted me. Ed Schein defines Humble Inquiry as “the fine art of drawing someone out, of asking questions to which you do not know the answer, of building a relationship based on curiosity and interest in the other person.”



The book provides the what, why and how of Humble Inquiry. Here is a list of the chapters, they are pretty self-explanatory

  • Introduction: Creating Positive Relationships and Effective Organisations.
  • Humble Inquiry
  • Humble Inquiry in Practice – Case Examples
  • Differentiating Humble Inquiry from Other Kinds of Inquiry
  • The Culture of Do and Tell
  • Status, Rank, and Role Boundaries as Inhibitors
  • Forces Inside Us as Inhibitors
  • Developing the Attitude of Humble Inquiry

In the reading

The book is quite conversational and easy to read. Edgar H. Schein is an Emeritus Professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management. He describes this book as “a culmination and distillation of my 50 years of work as a social and organizational psychologist.” Ed uses several examples in the book to highlight the impact of humble inquiry. The first is a relay team, who don’t need to be the fastest runners but the best team with great baton changes. He uses baton changes as a metaphor for communication. Another example is a surgical team made up of several different cultures, status and ranks. This showed how humble inquiry works in a life or death environment. He also used examples from his own life. These examples gave the book a real practical feel.

We value task accomplishment over relationship building

His exploration into the what and why of Humble Inquiry really set up for the last chapter of the book.

Putting it into practice

In the final chapter of the book, Ed acknowledges the difficulty of unlearning and learning a new skill. He helps by giving the following tips.

  • Slow down and vary the pace
  • Reflect more and ask yourself humble inquiry questions
  • Become more mindful
  • Try innovating and engage the artist within you
  • Review and reflect on your own behaviour after an event
  • Become sensitive to the coordination needs of your work
  • As a leader, build relationships with your team members
  • Build cultural islands

The ultimate challenge is for you to discover you should not succumb to telling, but to take charge with Humble Inquiry.

Impact on me

Stop needing to tell

During a conversation when a thought comes while the other person is speaking, let it flow past. You don’t need to share it. If they want to know they will ask. Holding onto the thought gets in the way of listening.

Here-and-Now Humility

Rank, status and culture can get in the way of communication. By using humble inquiry you can break down the barriers. The interdependence to complete complex tasks and find solutions requires trust and communication.

Exploratory questions

We have all done the following I’m sure. ‘Hi, how are you? Good and you? Good and you?’ Exploratory questions break up the script. Even a slight change to ‘How are things going?’ changes the response people give. Other examples ‘What brought you here today?’ ‘How did you become interested in (insert interesting topic here)?’ If you don’t know the answer then it is a great question.

What’s next?

There are several books in the series so next up for me is Humble Consulting. I’m aiming to use humble inquiry into my life day to day. I’m looking forward to introducing humble inquiry to Pre-mortems and Postmortems.
If you want to hear Edgar Schein talk about the ideas in the book check out this video on you-tube