(An Excerpt from my recent book, What Matters at Work)

“We must become better at asking and do less telling in a culture that overvalues telling.” — Edgar Schein, Humble Inquiry (2014)

We constantly communicate, but do we truly understand one another? Much conflict occurs because of misunderstanding, and as we engage in hurried, often remote communication strategies, we tend to hear only part of the situation. We then affiliate with those we perceive to be similar to us and “on our side” of the work issue, or become further entrenched in the social or political divide. This is not a recent phenomenon, as there is often a deep suspicion of Other that expresses itself across cultures and centuries (this is further discussed in Lesson 18 on Diversity and Inclusion).

Today’s workplace requires us to pay attention, communicate effectively, and work collaboratively to address complex issues. Yet because we are overwhelmed with information and have difficulty discerning where to focus our attention, it is easy to get lost in the minutiae and lose What Matters. We need to listen… deeply… and we need to be fully Present to the Core Story, Values, and Intentions that should be guiding our efforts and those of our colleagues.

Management guru Edgar Schein offers an important set of insights in this regard: Through his books, Humble Inquiry (2014)  and Humble Consulting (2016), Schein recognizes that those with the privilege of position and power often miss what needs to be learned from their colleagues, due either to perceptions of ‘normal behavior’ or arrogance. He argues that many errors in judgment and decision-making could be avoided with a fundamental shift in attitudes by such leaders, accompanied by a commitment to fully listen to one another. He calls it, “humble inquiry.” I see it as a combination of humility, curiosity, and openness to diverse (and divergent) perspectives in our pursuit of What Matters.

Listening fully must be accompanied by a commitment to really learn from one another through our conversations. All too often, consultants, technical experts, and those in leadership roles are expected to have the answers. Yet much of the knowledge required comes from others, across the organization, perhaps with unassuming titles. This takes a little more time in the near term, but in the long run it yields vast dividends of insight, understanding, and focused action in pursuit of the right solutions to correct problems.

We focus here on the simple act of listening, which encourages authentic communication around meaningful issues. Through such conversations, relationships are built and insights into our Core Stories are developed, all benefitting from a genuine sense of curiosity and openness.

Exercise: Listen with Humility and Curiosity

WHO: Solo/ Pair

WHY: To have a meaningful conversation, characterized by deep listening, humility, openness, and curiosity, in order to foster effective mutual understanding. From resulting insights, participants may best determine what actions, if any, are required.

HOW: You will need a Partner for this activity… perhaps someone already involved in your efforts at What Matters at Work… or it could be a colleague you don’t know as well.
Step 1: Be seated comfortably so you can easily see and hear your Partner. Take a deep breath, relax, and focus on your Partner in this conversation. Regard the other person with warmth and respect.
Step 2: Take a listening stance, with an open body, removing distractions. Invite your Partner to speak openly and honestly about a matter of personal importance to them, including how their experience has led to this perspective. Listen fully: As you do so, encourage, clarify, summarize, validate – demonstrate your humble curiosity without judgment. Allow sufficient time, at least five minutes.
Step 3: Take a minute to inquire, “How might I be able to assist you?” The response from your Partner may be to simply be present and listen, or to ask your advice and guidance… that need comes from your Partner. If invited to do so, offer your guidance clearly, empathically, and concisely… speak from what you know, rather than to speculate or be judgmental. The Intention is for you to convey your full commitment to understanding your Partner’s experience and truth, and to support your Partner’s efforts to clarify What Matters as it emerges.
Step 4: In turn, share your perspective on something that matters to you, perhaps from your Core Story. If your Partner can reciprocate your behaviors, you will both be able to benefit from such a conversation.
Step 5: After the conversation ends, take a moment to reflect:

  • What did you appreciate about this conversation? 
  • How might it have been improved? 
  • How might such conversations benefit us in our workplace? 
  • Are there opportunities to have them, or are there chances to create such opportunities? 

I have appreciated Edgar Schein’s contributions and feel he has a wonderful way of relating these concepts to traditional business settings. In my next Post, I want to focus on his most recent book, Humble Leadership (2018), where he directly applies these approaches to listening with humility to the ways leaders should approach their responsibilities. 

Published by Harry Webne-Behrman

I am a facilitator, mediator, educator, and consultant specializing in addressing complex challenges and disputes within organizations. I bring over 40 years experience to this work and offer two recent books, What Matters at Work (2020) and What Matters in This Moment (2021) to these efforts.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: