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The world is becoming more technologically complex, interdependent, and culturally diverse, which makes the building of relationships more and more necessary to get things accomplished and, at the same time, more difficult. Relationships are the key to good communication: good communication is the key to successful task accomplishment; and Humble Inquiry, based on Here-and-now Humility, is the key to good relationships.

The above quote from Edgar H. Schein’s new book, Humble Inquiry, represents just one of the insights I’ve gained recently from his work.

Schein says that there is a bit of confusion in our society as to what humility is, therefore we have a difficult time communicating and working together. He defines three kinds of humility.

  1. Basic Humility – This kind isn’t a choice, but a condition based on someone’s social position (ie. class).
  2. Optional Humility – This kind is based on respecting someone because they have accomplished more than us. Still, we can choose to be around them or not.
  3. Here-and-now Humility – This kind is based on how I feel when I am dependent on you. Social class or achievement doesn’t apply with here-and-now humility because without mutual respect and dependence, we won’t be able to get our task done. This kind represents the kind of humility needed with Humble Inquiry.

Because our society doesn’t differentiate between these kinds of humility, we often don’t communicate well with others because of an assumed status someone has or accomplishment they’ve made. Understanding here-and-now humility means we can work together without regard to our status or accomplishment because we need each other.

Operating like this means we have to ask questions instead of telling. Because our culture values telling, this will take some work, especially for leaders who believe leading means they get to tell others what to do. Schein offers a simple question leaders can ask their people that demonstrates here-and-now humility:

“I am completely dependent on you. What do we need to work out to make things go smoothly?”

For leaders who want to tell instead of ask, Schein says you must be clear on three levels before this will work.

  1. Do both parties have the same goal in mind?
  2. Do you, as the superior, know the answers?
  3. Does the subordinate understand clearly what is being communicated?

If your answer to these three questions is clear – then you are free to direct. Otherwise, practicing here-and-now humility will get you a lot farther.

I realize I’m posting this right before the holidays, so as you are with your loved ones, try out some humble inquiry. Try asking questions when you around the dinner table instead of telling. Questions like: “why is that important to you?” or “tell me more about that” or “help me understand” will take you a lot farther than just trading content with people. Helping leaders learn to ask instead of tell has become my joy. Thank you Edgar Schein for giving me a language to explain why I’m in the coaching industry.

Want to learn more about coaching? Contact me here.

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