What’s the one thing you can do in a relationship with another person to immediately shift the balance of power?

Ask a question.

Not just any question. There are ways of asking that are more like telling. The question I just asked is actually one of those. Why? Because I already knew the answer. The question wasn’t really a question. It was more of a device for telling.

What kinds of questions are you asking? Are your questions more often a device for telling or do they truly shift the balance of power by putting you, as the asker, in a position of vulnerability?

Edgar Schein, author of Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling, notes that “telling” can have the effect of “putting the other person down.” Nobody I know actually wants to put people down in their day-to-day conversations and interactions with others. So how do we get better? Schein offers the art of asking questions – humble inquiry.

Humble inquiry starts with an attitude of genuine interest, curiosity and vulnerability. Schein distinguishes humble inquiry from some other common forms of inquiry this way:

  • Humble Inquiry does not direct the response. It is open-ended and unassuming. And perhaps the most important element of humble inquiry is the commitment to wholeheartedly listening to the response.
  • Diagnostic Inquiry is different because it steers toward an objective. It is aimed less at simply understanding the other person’s perspective and experience and more at solving a problem or reaching a goal.
  • Confrontational Inquiry is even more rhetorical and leading. This form of inquiry is really just a form of telling in which the inquirer inserts his or her own ideas.
  • Process-oriented Inquiry shifts the focus of a conversation onto the conversation itself. It can be humble, diagnostic or confrontational in nature, but because its focus is on the immediate interaction, in the moment, it has the power to reset or recalibrate the interaction and the relationship between the participants.

The book provides a wealth of practical examples, illustrations and specific advice for how to get more humble inquiry into your daily interactions with people. This is not a new book. It was published in 2013. But I’m glad a friend recommended it to me, and so now I’m recommending it to you.

As a leadership practice, humble inquiry is an attractive alternative to the cultural norms that often drive us to be more concerned with getting a result than we are with the longer-term process of cultivating high quality relationships based on trust and mutual understanding. Schein challenges leaders to invest in those relationships, to make themselves vulnerable, and to intentionally practice empowering other people through the art of asking questions. It’s a quick read, but one that deserves regular review. Indeed, it requires regular review to shift the balance from our default diagnostic and confrontational inquiry to the humble inquiry Schein prescribes.


Kim Turnage, Ph.D. works as a Senior Leadership Consultant for Talent Plus and with her colleague Larry Sternberg is author of Managing to Make a Difference. She writes regularly on leadership and everything that goes along with it. Find more of her work here.

 

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