Creating more gender equitable and inclusive cultures is high on the agenda for many organisations. However there is often a disconnect between existing staff development activities and efforts to create the desired cultures. More explicitly linking individual development to organisational change can make a big difference to the return on investment when developing staff. The ‘bifocal approach’ translates this ideal into reality through clear principles and program design.

Summer reading: 'Humble Inquiry' and its applicability to mentoring

‘We must become better at asking and do less telling in a culture that overvalues telling’ p.3

Humble Inquiry; The gentle art of asking rather than telling  (2013)

Edgar H Schein, San Francisco, Berrett-Koehler Publishers 


Working with mentors is one of the hardest things I do. So, when I was drawn to the title of Edgar Schein’s book Humble Inquiry I approached it with this in mind. What, if anything, might be helpful for mentors in this book? Did it contain anything useful in developing their understanding and skills as mentors?

It isn’t that mentors are intentionally making my life difficult. After all they are the organisational good citizens, volunteers adding yet another task to their overflowing diaries. They bring a great deal of generosity and good will to the role of mentor, and are keen to assist their more junior colleagues. And when I see them, they’ve also made time in a busy schedule to come to a development session. Nonetheless, there are several things conspiring against me, and them in building good mentoring relationships.

The sub title gives some clues – The gentle art of asking instead of telling. Why do we need a book about asking instead of telling? Some mentors wish that they were better at asking questions. Quite often however, mentors dispute with me the need not to tell. Advice giving – a form of telling – forms a large part of what mentors do, according to my research. This is backed up by my conversations with mentors and mentees. However, advice giving can only take us so far, and it does not build relationship. And it is the importance of building relationships that sits at the heart of this book.

After 50 years of consulting Schein concludes that ‘what builds relationships, what solves problems, what moves things forward is asking the right questions’. Not only is the question itself important, but perhaps even more important is ‘our underlying attitude as we ask’ hence the idea of humble inquiry.  Humble Inquiry ‘derives from an attitude of interest and curiosity.  It implies a desire to build relationship that will lead to more open communication’ (p.19).  Humble Inquiry, according to Schein, is an essential addition to any leaders toolkit.

My purpose here then is to take some of Schein’s main points and think about them from a mentoring perspective. The distinction Schein makes between telling and asking, between knowing versus inquiring coincide quite neatly with my work distinguishing between instrumental (advice giving) and developmental (inquiring) mentoring relationships (see publications).  Yet many aspects of our culture and workplace practices get in the way. This explains why as a consultant I sometimes feel I am swimming against the tide. As Schein points out we value task accomplishment more than relationship building. Moreover, ‘the results of a pragmatic, individualistic, competitive, task oriented culture is that humility is low on the value scale’ (p.58). And in our strongly hierarchical organisations we have strong norms around asking and telling in superior-subordinate relationships. But it is humility and genuine interest, he argues that are integral to asking rather than telling. 

Mentors, senior successful people in their organisations, may be more accomplished at excelling and doing than relationship building, rewarded for what they know, not their ability to inquire, accustomed to the distance created by hierarchy, and unused to the idea of learning from subordinates. Mentees operating within these cultural norms may be eager for advice that helps them to fit in, optimistic regarding what the mentor might do for them, unused to querying the knowledge of their senior colleagues, and potentially overawed by the seniority of their mentor, who must be right. All this conspires against establishing two-way developmental mentoring relationships.

So how can mentors improve their humble inquiry skills? Schein, rather than being prescriptive about what questions you can and can’t ask as a humble inquirer, does two things. He focuses on the attitude of humble inquiry and he distinguishes humble inquiry from three other types of inquiry. 

Humble inquiry, using open-ended questions, maximizes curiosity and interest, while minimizing bias and preconceptions. It depends on placing oneself in a position of genuine not knowing. Rather than eliciting the socially expected response, this approach is best for finding out what is really on the other persons mind. In contrast diagnostic inquiry is when the inquirer is directing the conversation to focus on something of interest to them, through questions, which Schein says influences the other’s mental process. Confrontational inquiry is where the inquirer inserts their own ideas, but in the form of a question. This can become tacit advice giving, which may invite resistance. Process-oriented inquiry is quite different and an excellent adjunct to humble inquiry. Schein defines this as shifting the conversational focus onto the conversation itself – a kind of here and now checking in that allows both parties to focus on the relationship and whether each person’s goals are being met. Schein gives examples of questions that fit each inquiry mode, however he stresses that  ‘Humble inquiry starts with the attitude and is then supported by our choice of questions.’ (p.50)

If we stop and think we can all identify our own experiences with inquirers of different persuasions. Conversations where we hear ourselves say something new, versus conversations where we repeat what we’ve always said. Conversations where we felt relentlessly questioned, veering away from what we really wanted to talk about.  Being on the receiving end of unwelcome or inappropriate advice based on someone’s experience that bears no relationship to our own context. Conversations where we’ve deepened relationships or clarity around goals and expectations as a result of a ‘here and now’ check in. I think these categories are useful for those wishing to develop their questioning, inquiry and ultimately relationship building skills.

Schein’s book reinforces for me how developing mentor’s skills can have much broader payoffs. Humble inquiry, practiced in a development session for mentors, honed in a mentoring relationship and extended to other workplace relationships will pay big dividends. Relationship building takes time, but once built, ‘the work actually gets done much faster’ (p.102). It is worthwhile for us all to swim against the cultural tide of telling rather than asking.