One of the books talked about at this year’s International Forum on Quality and Safety in Health Care (IHI) held in London on 27-28 April 2017 was first published in 2013, but its message resonates even more with each passing year since then. The Humble Inquiry deals with the important skill of asking instead of telling in order to generate ideas, avoid terrible mistakes, develop greater agility and greater flexibility.

This is a book authored by one of the most well-known theorists working with organisational culture who is credited with inventing the term ‘corporate culture’. Edgar Schein, a former professor at MIT Sloan who spent much of his career investigating organisational culture, process consultation, career dynamics, organisational learning and change.

Both experienced and inexperienced managers and leaders can be trapped into interacting by telling others what we think they need to know, and in the process, stifle open dialogue and miss on the opportunity for sharing ideas and learning. Edgar Schein defines Humble Inquiry as “the fine art of drawing someone out, of asking questions to which you do not know the answer, of building a relationship based on curiosity and interest in the other person.”

Schein describes three types of humility. The humility that comes with:

  • Elders and dignitaries
  • The awe we have with achievers
  • The ‘here and now humility’ which results from being dependent on someone else to achieve a task

He contrasts forms of questioning and the kind of questioning that is most likely to draw others out and in the process build quality relationships that deliver results. The more senior people are in organisations, the harder it is to engage in the sorts of questions he describes unless you consciously do so. Schein relates a short story as an example of disastrous communication and asks the question. How could this have been done better? The answer he says is simply three things:

  • Do less telling
  • Learn to do more asking
  • Do a better job of listening and acknowledging

So much is written about listening and talking but less about the art of asking questions. This book is about how to ask questions which are the basis for building trusting relationships, better communication and effective collaboration.

Much of what Schein has written about is drawn from his insights gained in consulting in high risk fields where safety is paramount and where good relations and reliable communication across hierarchic boundaries are crucial. He references in particular ‘hospitals and the healthcare system generally.’

This is a book for every health leader.