Humble Inquiry – Summary, Notes, Key Ideas

Picture of Andrew

In a Nutshell

  • What we have to learn is how to bridge the status gap between role boundaries when we are mutually dependent on each other.
  • “Why is it so important to learn to ask better questions that help to build positive relationships? Because in an increasingly complex, interdependent, and culturally diverse world, we cannot hope to understand and work with people from different occupational, professional, and national cultures if we do not know how to ask questions and build relationships that are based on mutual respect and the recognition that others know things that we may need to know in order to get a job done.”
  • “We must become better at asking and do less telling in a culture that overvalues telling.”
  • “All my teaching and consulting experience has taught me that what builds a relationship, what solves problems, what moves things forward is asking the right questions.”
  • “This book is for the general reader, but it has special significance for people in leadership roles because the art of questioning becomes more difficult as status increases.”


About the Author

Edgar Schein

  • Schein spent 50 years of his life as a social and organizational psychologist.
  • A former professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management.






Key Concepts


Humble Inquiry

  • “Humble Inquiry is the fine art of drawing someone out, of asking questions to which you do not already know the answer, of building a relationship based on curiosity and interest in the other person.”
  • “Humble Inquiry is ultimately the basis for building trusting relationships, which facilitates better communication and, thereby, ensures collaboration where it is needed to get the job done.”
  • “What we ask, how we ask it, where we ask it, and when we ask it all matter.”
  • “The essential act of Humble Inquiry is in bringing [people] together and getting interested in them as people before asking them to help create a good climate of communication.”
  • “On the other hand, asking temporarily empowers the other person in the conversation and temporarily makes me vulnerable. It implies that the other person knows something that I need to or want to know.”
  • “The essence of Humble Inquiry goes beyond just overt questioning. The kind of inquiry I am talking about derives from an attitude of interest and curiosity. It implies a desire to build a relationship that will lead to more open communication. It also implies that one makes oneself vulnerable and, thereby, arouses positive helping behavior in the other person.”



The Problem of Communication

  • “The missing ingredients in most conversations are curiosity and willingness to ask questions to which we do not already know the answer.”
  • Lack of good relations and reliable communication across hierarchic boundaries. “Especially in the high hazard industries in which the problems of safety are paramount.”
  • “In airplane crashes and chemical industry accidents, in the infrequent but serious nuclear plant accidents, in the NASA Challenger and Columbia disasters, and in the British Petroleum gulf spill, a common finding is that lower-ranking employees had information that would have prevented or lessened the consequences of the accident, but either it was not passed up to higher levels, or it was ignored, or it was overridden.”
  • “[subordinates] they tell me either they do not feel safe bringing bad news to their bosses or they’ve tried but never got any response or even acknowledgment, so they concluded that their input wasn’t welcome and gave up.”
  • “(…)in hospitals, in operating rooms, and in the health care system generally, I find the same problems of communication exist and that patients frequently pay the price.”
  • “(…)in all of these situations is a climate in which lower-level employees feel safe to bring up issues that need to be addressed, information that would reduce the likelihood of accidents, and, in health care, mistakes that harm patients.”
  • “in a new and ambiguous situation, team members will fall back on their own cultural rules and do unpredictable things.”
  • “How does one produce a climate in which people will speak up, bring up information that is safety related, and even correct superiors or those of higher status when they are about to make a mistake?”

Further reading:



  • “A huge question is whether with growing task complexity and cultural diversity it will be possible to maintain these status boundaries. Or will relationship building in the task arena inevitably require some degree of personalization?”
  • “The question we must then ask is whether the key to making interdependent relationships work is to personalize them to some degree. And, if so, how can Humble Inquiry make that happen?”





3 Kinds of Humility

(Based on 3 kinds of status)


  • Granting someone else a higher status than one claims for oneself. To be humiliated means to be publicly deprived of one’s claimed status, to lose face.


1. Basic humility – the humility that we feel around elders and dignitaries.

2. Optional humility – the humility that we feel in the presence of those who awe us with their achievements. We tend to feel humble in the presence of people who have clearly achieved more than we have, and we either admire or envy them.

3. Here-and-now humility – how I feel when I am dependent on you.  It results from our being dependent from time to time on someone else in order to accomplish a task that we are committed to. You have the power to help or hinder me in the achievement of goals that I have chosen and have committed to. I have to be humble because I am temporarily dependent on you. —> It leads to open task-related communication.

• “Consider how much of the work done in today’s technologically complex world cannot be done by the leader; hence the leader must learn to live with Here-and-now Humility.”


“Culture of Do and Tell“

“a mindset of seeking simple ways to serve the group”

  • Western culture in general values task accomplishment more than relationship building. That’s the reason why we are more biased toward telling than asking questions.
  • “the art of questioning becomes more difficult as status increases.”
  • “not only do we value telling more than asking, but we also value doing more than relating and thereby reduce our capacity and desire to form relationships.”
  • “Knowing things is highly valued, and telling people what we know is almost automatic.”



  1. Do less telling.
  2. Learn to do more asking in the particular form of Humble Inquiry.
  3. Do a better job of listening and acknowledging.
  • “What is so wrong with telling? The short answer is a sociological one. Telling puts the other person down. It implies that the other person does not already know what I am telling and that the other person ought to know it. Often when I am told something that I did not ask about, I find that I already know that and wonder why the person assumes that I don’t. When I am told things that I already know or have thought of, at the minimum I get impatient, and at the maximum I get offended. The fact that the other person says, “But I was only trying to help—you might not have thought of it,” does not end up being helpful or reassuring.”



  • Individualistic, competitive, optimistic, and pragmatic.
  • Humility is low on the value scale.
  • the basic unit of society is the individual, whose rights have to be protected at all costs
  • entrepreneurial: admire individual accomplishment (based on the Horatio Alger myth of working one’s way up from the bottom)
  • We believe more in start performers rather than team accomplishment.
  • There is always someone to praise and someone to blame.
  • Accountability must be individual —> “there must be someone to praise for victory and someone to blame for defeat, the individual where “the buck stops.”
  • Admire individual competitiveness.
  • “In the United States, status and prestige are gained by task accomplishment, and once you are above someone else, you are licensed to tell them what to do.”



  • “I once asked a group of management students what it meant to them to be promoted to “manager.” They said without hesitation, “It means I can now tell others what to do.” Of course, the dangerous and hidden assumption in that dictum is that once people are promoted that they will then know what to do.”
  • “We take it for granted that accountability must be individual; there must be someone to praise for victory and someone to blame for defeat, the individual where “the buck stops.”


Levels of Culture


LEVEL 1. Artifacts

  • Buildings, artworks, products, language, and everything that we see and feel when we enter another culture.

LEVEL 2. Espoused values

  • What do things mean in that culture?
  • Freedom, equality of opportunity, individual rights, and other values that are often referred to as “our constitutional rights.”

LEVEL 3. Tacit assumptions

  • A deeper level of culture, the essence of culture which really influences behavior.
  • Taken for granted assumptions that really drive behavior.
  • “All cultures have rules about status and respect based on deep assumptions about what merits status.”



  • There are inconsistencies between artifacts, values. What really drives behavior are tacit assumptions.

Example of this: US culture:

  • We strongly VALUE teamwork —> but the ARTIFACTS: promotional systems and rewards systems are entirely individualistic.
  • We strongly VALUE equality of opportunity and freedom —> but the ARTIFACTS: poorer education, little opportunity, and various forms of discrimination for ghetto minorities.
  • TACIT ASSUMPTIONS: “pragmatism and “rugged individualism” that operate all the time and really determine our behavior.”


Further reading:

Further reading: 📖 Edgar Schein: The Corporate CultureSurvival Guide 📖 Edgar H. Schein, Organizational Culture and Leadership




  • Status manifests itself in social situations.
  • We have clear expectations and strict social norms and rules on how to behave in every situation.
  • When someone doesn’t behave according to these social rules it arouses anxiety and anger.


  • “has special significance for people in leadership roles because the art of questioning becomes more difficult as status increases.”
  • When there is a status gap between people: “What we have to learn (…) is how to bridge those status gaps when we are in fact mutually dependent on each other.”
  • “A huge question is whether with growing task complexity and cultural diversity it will be possible to maintain these status boundaries. Or will relationship building in the task arena inevitably require some degree of personalization?”
  • “The question we must then ask is whether the key to making interdependent relationships work is to personalize them to some degree. And, if so, how can Humble Inquiry make that happen?”


  • When the superior is speaking, the subordinate is supposed to pay attention and not interrupt.
  • The superior is supposed to make sense and behave in a dignified manner.
  • Using different levels of “mitigation” when talking to a superior. (More on this topic: Malcolm Gladwell: Outliers)


Role Relations

Task oriented vs. personal oriented

  • What is it we are here to do, what is our role in the situation, what do we expect of each other, and what kind of relationship is this to be?
  • Think about relationships as a continuum that stretches from the extremely task oriented to the extremely personal.”

INSTRUMENTAL relationships (task oriented)

  • one person needs something specific from the other person
  • professional: “getting together to get the job done”
  • impersonal, emotionally neutral

EXPRESSIVE relationships (personal oriented)

  • It is expected to be more emotionally charged.
  • The goal is to get to know someone better and establish a close relationship.


The four parts of our socio-psychological self

  • First invented by Joe Luft and Harry Ingham.


  • The topics that we are willing to talk about and know are OK to talk about with strangers.
  • The weather, where you are from, “name, rank, and serial number,” and task-related information.
  • We all know what is culturally appropriate in a given situation.


  • We all send many signals unintentionally without being aware of it.
  • Body language, our tone of voice, our timing and cadence of speech, our clothing, and accoutrements.
  • The signals we are sending without being aware that we are sending them.
  • “We know that we form impressions of others, so must know that they form impressions of us, but, unless we create special circumstances that bend some of the rules of culture, we may go through an entire lifetime without ever finding out what some others really thought of us.”
  • (For more on this topic read the works of Paul Ekman or Joe Navarro)


  • All the things we know about ourselves and others but are not supposed to reveal because it might offend or hurt others or might be too embarrassing to ourselves.
  • Insecurities that we are ashamed to admit.
  • Feelings and impulses we consider to be anti-social or inconsistent with our self-image.
  • Memories of events where we failed or performed badly against our own standards.
  • Reactions to other people that we judge would be impolite or hurtful to reveal to their face.


  • Neither I nor the people with whom I have relationships know about me.
  • Everything that comes to the surface in a brand new situation.
  • Hidden talents, unconscious thoughts, and feelings, unpredictable responses.


  • Communication designed to open up the areas of unknown to ourselves and also to others.
  • Revealing our flaws or the flaws of others carries a high risk of losing self-esteem. (Amy Edmondson calls this “interpersonal risk”.
  • “It has to be a slow and carefully calibrated process. (…) Personal feedback remains dangerous even in an intimate relationship.”

Further reading:




  • We observe everything that is occurring in our environment.

Bias in observation

  • Observation is biased, it isn’t fully rational.
  • “To put it more dramatically, we do not think and talk about what we see; we see what we are able to think and talk about.”
  • We see what we expect, based on our prior experience, we filter out the rest.
  • Perception can be distorted (defence mechanisms)
  • If we want to see the situation clearly we must understand ourselves and our distortions and cognitive biases.
  • More on this topic:  Daniel Kahneman’s books: Thinking, Fast and SlowNoise.


  • We react emotionally to what we have observed.
  • We can react to the situation or prior to observation.
  • Reaction to situations is immediate and unconscious most of the times. However we learnt that showing our reactions and expressing our feelings in every single situation is not always beneficial.
  • As we become socialized we learn which feelings are acceptable and which ones are not.
  • “Practicing Humble Inquiry before we judge and act becomes an important way of preventing unfortunate consequences”.


  • We analyze, process, and make judgments based on our observations and feelings.
  • A unique aspect of human intelligence: “This ability to analyze prior to action is what makes humans capable of planning sophisticated behavior to achieve complex goals and sustain action chains that take us years into the future.”
  • BUT judgments are worth only as much as the data on which they are based. Therefore it is absolutely essential to gather enough data prior to judgment. Humble Inquiry is a perfect tool for that.


  • Once we have made some kind of judgment, we act.
  • However, when we make a wrong judgment it is very easy to escalate further with an inappropriate action.




  • Provides motivation for new learning. “the realization that unless we learn the new behavior, we will be at a disadvantage”


  • Causes resistance to change.
  • “realize it may be difficult, or we may not want to tolerate the period of incompetence while we learn, or our friends may not understand or welcome our new behavior”
  • IF learning anxiety is bigger than survival anxiety we resist change.


To possible ways of increase learning:

  1. Increase survival anxiety. This approach only leads to frustration and increasing tension.
  2. Decrease learning anxiety. It is meaningful what we have to learn. There will be support or coaching.





  • “The toughest relearning, or new learning, is for leaders to discover their dependence on their subordinates, to embrace Here-and-now Humility, and to build relationships of high trust and valid communication with their subordinates. This kind of attitude and behavior is the most counter-cultural, yet, I believe, the most important to learn.”


  • Communication designed to open up the areas of unknown to ourselves and also to others.
  • Revealing our flaws or the flaws of others carries a high risk of losing self-esteem. (Amy Edmondson calls this “interpersonal risk”.
  • “It has to be a slow and carefully calibrated process. (…) Personal feedback remains dangerous even in an intimate relationship.”

Further material


How to ask and not to ask questions?

  • Some questions are just another form of telling.
  • Some seemingly very open ways of inquiring are actually quite controlling of the other person.

1. Humble Inquiry

2. Diagnostic inquiry

3. Confrontational inquiry

4. Process-oriented inquiry


  • Humble Inquiry maximizes my curiosity and interest in the other person and minimizes bias and preconceptions about the other person.
  • Ask for information in the least biased and threatening way.
  • Not wanting the other person to give a socially acceptable response —> BUT figuring out what is his or her honest opinion
  • Show: acceptance, curiosity, genuine interest in the other person.


  • Steering the wheel of the conversation —> Taking charge of the conversation by not answering the original question but asking another one.
  • “As innocent and supportive as these questions might seem, they take control of the situation and force others to think about something that they may not have considered and may not want to consider.”

4 categories of diagnostic inquiry:

2.1. Feelings and reactions

  • Focusing on the feelings and reactions of the other person.
  • This personalizes the conversation.
  • Example: How do you feel about that? What was your reaction to that?

2.2. Causes and motives

  • Asking about the causes and motivations in relation to something that they have been talking about.
  • Forcing the other person to join me in figuring out what may be going on
  • “Why did that happen?” “What may have caused this …?” “Why do you suppose that happened?”

2.3. Action-oriented

  • “Action-oriented questions clearly push the other person even further into your line of thinking. In that sense, these questions also influence the other’s mental process and should be used only when you feel justified in exerting that influence.”
  • “What have you tried so far?” “How did you get here?” “What are you going to do next?”

2.4. Systemic Questions

  • Questions that build an understanding of the total situation
  • “What did she (he/they) do then?” “What do you think he will do if you follow through on what you said?” “How would they have reacted if you had told them how you felt?”


  • Inserting your own idea in a form of a question.
  • The question is a form of telling: rhetorical questions.
  • giving advice makes it harder to build a relationship.
  • If you strongly influencing someone with this type of inquiry he/she may react with defensiveness.

Examples (confrontational inquiry)

  • “Did that not make you angry?” vs. “How did that make you feel?”
  • “Why didn’t you say something to the group?” vs. “What did you do?”
  • “Were the others in the room surprised?” vs. “How were the others in the room reacting?”


  • Focus on the conversation and the relationship itself.
  • Difficult to learn because our culture does not support it as normal conversation.
  • “This form of inquiry is often the most powerful way to get out of awkward or difficult conversations because it allows both parties to reset.”
  • “What is happening?” “Are we OK?” “Did I offend you?” “What is happening here?” “Is this too personal?” “What should I be asking you now?”

Tools for Leaders



  • The leader’s job to be vulnerable first: “The burden then falls on the higher-status person to ask for help and to create the climate that gives permission for the help to be given.”
  • “To build (…) a relationship that facilitates relevant, task-oriented, open communication across status boundaries—requires that leaders learn the art of Humble Inquiry.”
  • Leaders from higher status positions have to become “here-and-now” humble (acknowledge that we all depend on each other).
  • “In a relationship across hierarchical boundaries it may be necessary for the higher status person to start humble inquiry not with a bunch of personal questions to his team but with a revelation about himself.”



H1 test

H2 test

H3 test

Paragraph test