Notes for "Humble Inquiry" by Edgar H. Schein.

February 01, 2017

What is Humble Inquiry?

A communication style based upon genuine curiosity and interest, where the desired outcome is to build a relationship which allows communicators to accomplish complex tasks. Or as Edgar H. Schein puts it,

Humble Inquiry maximizes my curiosity and interest in the other person and minimizes bias and preconceptions about the other person. 

Right after his statment, Schein is quick to give out a disclaimer stating how humble inquiry is not a checklist to follow or a set of prewritten questions. 

Or in other words, there is not easy TL;DR version and this is not going to be one of those "5 tricks to improve your next conversation" kind of articles.

It will take some mistakes, self exploration and trial and error to find out what works best for each of us to communicate with humble inquiry.


What follows are a collection of notes, half baked ideas, and opinions emanating from my reading of the material contained in Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling.

My process of writing this went something like this:

  1. Read, highlight and take liberal notes along the way.

  2. Filter down my notes to only those which are interesting and personally relevant.

  3. Expand and internalize any useful knowledge via writing what you see here.

This process is no where near as polished or fluid as the book, so if you want a more linear and digestable read I highly recommend you pick up the book and enjoy the quick read for yourself.

Why care about Humble Inquiry?

Everyone knows that now more than ever, our jobs require complex decision making, collaboaration, and iterative processes. Those who have been part of teams which shipped valuable products can tell you just how important communication was in making their product succesful. Humble Inquiry is just one method in our toolboxes to help us communicate, define and accomplish a teams shared goal: Creating succesful and valuble products.

Successful Products

Our projects require shifting roles and us wearing many different hats over the lifetime of a project. And throughout every step of a project, communication is always a successful factor, a force multiplier, and a large determiner of the project being eventually successful.

I can think back on many instances in which a failure to communicate important knowledge learned in one part of the project, say in early stakeholder interviews, was not transfered along to others on the team, say project managers and developers. With the end result being deleyed buggy software which never quite solved the stakeholders problem. This lack of good knowledge transfer is a symptom of poor communication which might be solved, or atleast helped with Humble Inquiry.

Successful products require good comunication. To which your thinking,

​ "Duh obviously, you said that already. Just get to your point".

Well, hold up, and think on this: Would you agree that communication relies on a high level of trust between a team? I mean would you trust your coworker John after he said "ready" when he clearly wasn't ready during that trust fall exercise🤔. Yeah, probably not. So in the hopeful scenario that your company doesn't practice trust fall exercises doesn't from the break room table, where would that trust come from? Real trust for real companies doesn't come from magic disney pixie dust.

Trust has got to come from somewhere real and practical. That somewhere, I argue, is from strong relationships built from communication based on Humble Inquiry.

Why Would Communication Be Hard?

Because we are often reluctant to ask questions that make us vulnerable. We live in culture which overvalues a communication style characterized by telling rather than by listening. We have ingrained the habits of seeking to win every confrontation in life, no matter how small.

How we view leadership doesnt help either, as we view leaders as being those who should provide direction, telling others what to do, and not asking. However,

… it is leaders who will need Humble Inquiry most because complex interdependent task will require building positive, trusting relationships , with subordinates to facilitate good upward communication. And without good upward communication, organization can be neither effective nor safe.

We tend to avoid empowering the other person and staying protected within our shell of our currently learned knowledge. We take a overly pragmatic approach to our time and problem solving, by avoiding the time and humility required to prgoress a conversation more than a shallow level.

Is Telling Really All That Bad?

Well, as most things in life, "It depends," and I would be the first to admit that I sometimes have enjoyed being just told things and have even become enamored by facts from someone who just talks, and talks never letting us get a word in. I mean I will let another person dictate the conversation if they talk with statements and facts, and provide a clear conclusion which I can get learn something out of. Examples are the Tim Ferriss's and Jennifer Pahlka's of the world.

The problem comes from how there really isn't that many of us who are capable of such public displays of our reasoning. In my experience what ends up happening is as someone talks to me, they begin to divert more to stories of people I don't care about, about things which have no relevance to me, and they come across far less coherent then they think they are. And by their story is done they will have successfully driven away whatever curiosity I begin with.

It might sound harsh but we all don't want to be told just any random facts, we want to choose and be filtered the bits of information relevant to our context and situation.

So barring the clairvoyant ability of mind reading, the next best thing to avoid driving away another's curiosity, is by instead focusing more on the Here-and-now humility we both are could be sharing.



Side stepping the whole virtuosos aspect, I would say it's an important feeling that can take different forms depending on the context. A good sense of the types of humility you face, will have implications on the various outcomes that we all will face.

Therefore, when felt, humility should not be either ignored or downplayed. No, instead it should be brought to the forefront of our minds, useful in our goal of better communication via humble inquiry.


  • Basic — Where in a traditional society, its not a choice but a condition based upon our statuses ascribed to us via birth. This humility must either be accepted or resented but would be fixed from our viewpoint. Think of the humility required for bowing down to nobility.
  • Optional — In a society that values accomplishments, and where status is awarded, we would feel this type of humility in the presence of other who have achieved more. Being optional implies that it is based on our reference groups, those who we surrond ourselves, and who we compare to. As such we could avoid feeling such humility by avoiding high achievers. TODO: An aside why its good to not be the smartest person in the room and how we are the sum of our 5 closest friends.
  • Here-and-now — Is the type of humility arrising from a task driven dependence on another. Where status in this sense could be changing rapidly in the moment depending on if the other person knows something or can do something for me that I need to accomplish my goals.

Here-and-now is what is needed in order for Humble Inquiry take place. The feeling of here-and-now humiity is a good motivator to help maximize our attention and courisity in others.

Diagnostic Inquiry

Can be classified into:

  • Feelings and Reactions
  • Causes and Motives
  • Action Oriented - direct attention on what thoughts, plans and actions are required in the immediate short term.
  • Systemic Questions - focus on a holostic view of the situation

The ORJI Cycle

A simple and straightforward mental model to incorporate the relationship between the verbal conversations we have and the mental processes which occur during them. View it as tool to categorize and highlight the biases, distortions, and impulses we feel during a conversation. And although the process happen relatively simultaneously, we can view them easier if we segment them in a cycle. Humble Inquiry is helps with the last part, the Intervention (I).

The ORJI Cycle

Process NameDescription
ObservationTaking notice of our environment.
ReactionsOur emotion based actions dependent on our observations.
JudgementOur conclusions based on the combination of our observations and emotional reactions.
InterventionOur overt hehavior to direct something to happen. This is where the application of humble inquiry comes into play.

Observations (O)

Our direct gathering of the information coming into us via our surrondings. Observations are important in that the later aspects of the model can be skewed with bad data. "Garbage in, garbage out".

Reactions (R)

Our emtional reactions are a direct result of what we observe. We often are not very cognizant of how big a role they play in our eventual judgments -- Think of System 1 as described by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. To be aware our emtions gives us more choice and freedom to choose how we both interpret and react to the converstation.

Judgement (J)

The logical conclusions and reasoning we eventually decide on. Highly dependent on how observant we really are. Just think on a time when you crafted a perfectly slick counter-argument but it fell apart right when another key piece of information was revealed.

Interventions (I)

Good interventions those where we minimize bias and preconceptions, maintain genunine curiosity, and steer it toward creating meaningful relationships. Bad interventions are those which are usually quick and shortsighted, knee-jerk reactions, usually based on bad observations.

Reflection & Biases

Reflective reconstruction of the ORJI cycle often reveals that one’s judgment is logical but is based on facts that may not be accurate; hence the outcome may not be logical at all. It follows therefore, that the most dangerous part of the cycle is the first step, where we take it for granted that what we perceive is valid enough to act on

A key point is that our wants and needs bias our observations by an amount we often downlplay or flat out overlook. This is what we experince when we are in denial.

  • Denial — where we flat out refuse to observe whole categories of information.

Many a time, it was only after some reflection when I relized how badly my observations of information were distorted.

I remember one such time, where a project became frusturating and excedingly difficult due to using a young framework as a major component of the system.

From then one my views of said framework were always negative and I viewed every article which praised it or showed succesful products made with it, as being highly skewed and misinformative.

My biases persisted even after the framework had undergone major changes, and it was only after a patient coworker highlighted where my mental model of the framework was either wrong or antiquated, that I realized how my initial exposure was prohibting me from seeing the useful bits of information contained in those articles .

What good practices can I focus on to improve?

  • Emphasize exploratory questions that minimize the amount of telling I give out, and instead try to maximize the others time spent elaborating on their thoughts.
  • Try to stay unbiased in how the conversation should go, avoid knee-jerk or automatic reactions. Pause and reflect when a emotion surges up.
  • Flow with the topic, and stay curious, providing outwardly signs of that couriosity. Oh and dont try to fake it, as I find most people to be far better readers of my subconscious body language than I am in directing it, but hey, thats just me.
  • Show equal appreciation and vulnerablity whenever they progress the relationship further first. But be careful in turning this into a game of one-upmanship.
  • Let yourself be vulnerable when the situation calls for it.
  • When the communication is trending towards beings too personal too fast, practice finding suble ways of directing the conversation back toward action and task oriented questions. Schein calls this Process-Oriented inquiry. He labels with a negative connotation, but I disagree and find it usefull in the moments when a topic becomes awkward and I need we need to bring ourselves back on track.

What bad tendencies if avoided, can help me toward Humble Inquiry?

  • Avoid Diagnostic Inquiry, which is exmplafied by the case of a person relying an interesting tidibt of a story to me, and then I choose to focus our attention on it, therbye biasing the other person's line of thought.
  • Avoid focusing on a persons immediate feelings of a topic. The simple "Oh cool, how did that make you feel?" or "oh wow, why do you think that happened?" What I call the "wanna-be good will hunting".
  • A big one is confrontational inquiry. A form of questioning which is comprised of rhetorical, leading or braggadocious types of questions. I'm often guilty of this if I get begin to view my coworkers too much as "bro's". Where I tend to want to one-up and crack jokes for sport.

Matthew Clemens © 2022