Humble enquiry: the gentle art of asking, not telling.

Next time you're in a meeting, try this: don't say anything. Just listen. And think. Make notes.

It goes against much of what we've been taught. Culturally, it's the person who seizes the initiative, takes 'the bull by the horns' and all that, who takes the glory. 

But consider this - in a typical meeting or conversation, the time you spend talking or thinking about what you're going to say next is time you're missing out on listening. What problems are we trying to solve here? Whose ideas seem best? How can I really contribute or help?

What about aiming to only speak in the last 5 minutes of the meeting? That way you'll be much better informed.

In his book, Humble Enquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking and Not Telling[1], Edgar Schein explains how we say we love curiosity and questions, but we elevate people who appear to have all the answers.

Schein believes there are two things missing from most conversations: "Curiosity, and a willingness to ask questions to which we don't already know the answer." In other words, to engage in 'humble enquiry'.

As an example, Schein provides a few "openers" to use in beginning a conversation that can help to express humble enquiry:

  • "How are things going?" (with an expectant look)
  • "What's happening?"
  • "What's going on?"
  • "What brings you here?"
  • "Go on ..."
  • "Can you give me an example?"

These questions should be asked with an expectant look. Body language is more important than the words used. Insincere acts of enquiry are always detectable, Schein notes.

Credit: Quartz at Work

"Humble enquiry maximises my curiosity and interest in the other person and minimises bias and preconceptions about the other person," writes Schein. "I want to access my ignorance and ask for information in the least biased and threatening way."

This is the humility in which one temporarily loses status, which is scary. You may have to talk to yourself to cope with your feelings in these situations. Think:

"It doesn't matter -

  • That I'm the older one,
  • That I should know the answer to this question,
  • That I am the boss,
  • That I am the parent,
  • That I have the most experience with this issue,
  • That I have the PhD,
  • That the team is judging me ..."

Schein says that we should recognise how much we still have to learn and practice to develop our ability to enquire humbly. We must learn to repress the urge to "tell" rather than "ask" to make room for humble enquiry to slip in.

And as you make changes to your conversation and meeting style, he warns readers, expect friends and colleagues to be a bit bewildered by your new behaviour.

Keep asking great questions ...

[1] This material is adapted from an on-line article in Quartz at Work, see