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Humble Inquiry

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Humble Inquiry

The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling


15 min read
10 take-aways
Audio & text

What's inside?

Build stronger relationships by showing humility and “asking” instead of “telling.”

Editorial Rating



  • Innovative
  • Applicable


Retired MIT professor Edgar H. Schein makes a solid case for humility. He explores the way American culture prioritizes action, practicality and competition over courteousness and respect. Schein encourages openness and curiosity about others in the form of “Humble Inquiry” – “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.” To counter a working environment often short of manners and civility, getAbstract recommends this slim but powerful book to executives, managers, leaders and anyone who wants to know how to ask a polite question and who really wants to know the answer.


“Humble Inquiry”

American culture encourages “Telling” instead of “Asking.” But telling hinders relationships, because when you tell people what to do, you assume they’re incompetent or lack information and that you’re the expert. “Asking” fosters better relationships. When you ask people for their input, you humble yourself and empower them. This nourishes long-term, productive interactions.

When you ask instead of tell, your partner can lead the conversation, and that builds trust. If you hear something you didn’t know or even something you didn’t want to know, you’ve still learned from the exchange. Telling shuts down communication. People hurrying through the workday do ask questions, but often their questions are biased toward action and are not humble inquiries.

Humility comes in three forms: “basic, optional and here-and-now.” Across all cultures, humiliating another person – causing someone to lose face – is a social offense. Avoiding it means practicing basic humility. Certain cultures have class systems or hierarchies; people born into a particular status level never lose that status. Members of upper classes enjoy higher rank and different treatment...

About the Author

Professor Edgar H. Schein retired from the MIT Sloan School of Management. He is the author of several books, including Helping and The Corporate Culture Survival Guide.

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