Jan 8th, 2021

The life-changing art of asking instead of telling


The most satisfying, potentially life-changing books about management are inevitably those that are really about our wider culture. Whether at work, or at dinner parties, or home with our families, how do we behave around other people? And how are we complicit in what’s not working?

A perfect example of this kind of book is Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking and Not Telling (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2013) by Edgar Schein, emeritus professor of management at MIT and a leading scholar of organizational psychology. That you may not have heard of it may have something to do with one of Schein’s central observations: We’re inconsistent in what we say we value versus what the “artifacts” tell us. In this case, our culture says it values humble attitudes, but our artifacts—our most popular instagrams, our celebrated CEOs, best-selling business book titles and subjects—undermine that ideal.

In theory we love curiosity and questions, but we routinely elevate people who have (or at least appear to have) the answers. We say we’re fed up with mansplainers or any ‘splainer, and may be afraid we unknowingly act like one, but we prop up “tellers” all the time, in turn putting pressure on ourselves to become one.

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