On Humble Inquiry
I have a recurring struggle where I find myself talking down to others when sharing technical information or pushing for my opinion on a matter. A friend recommended reading the book Humble Inquiry - The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling.
I found it to be a great read. The writing is clear, full of examples, and at 144 pages the signal to noise ratio is superb. The line that finally made things click for me was this:
It makes you feel demeaned when you realize that they think you have not already thought of this yourself.
It always kills me to see something I’ve struggled to figure out for ages suddenly put into such simple words. “Ugh, it’s so obvious!”
A few other quotes from the book & the notes I wrote down alongside them:
If the choice is between “you or me”, look for a way to explore “us”, your relationship itself. Ask an open question to get information you need, a question that is not answerable with just a yes or a no. Invite joint problem solving.
“Do you want to grab lunch today?” —> “I can’t today, how about another time?” This puts the other person down, and denies you the opportunity to learn what may be behind the request + doesn’t allow you to share what has you focused elsewhere. “Do you want to grab lunch today?” -> “Mmm, what’s on your mind?” or, “What’s the occasion?” You learn what may be behind the request, can share what’s on your plate, and you can find a joint solution. It’s also caring, considerate.
Access your ignorance and allow curiosity to lead your questions, lead you. “What does the VP of Administration do?” [list] “Does PR have to be part of this job? Maybe we can separate that out.” When you lead with inquiry, you are seeking information, you are curious, you’re not jumping to conclusions nor feeling frustrated with the process or apparent obviousness of an answer. It facilitates an open conversation and invites change. These questions show interest and respect, they stimulate more truth telling and collaboration.
Asking for examples is one of the most powerful ways to show curiosity and interest and concern. More importantly it clarifies general statements. An open, follow up question is incredibly effective when problem solving.
Don’t jump in with an answer until you understand what is being asked. Put another way, don’t assume that the question that was asked was the [right/wrong] question. I frequently don’t answer the question that was asked as I’ve guessed at what they’re seeking and answered that instead. Rather, ask what they’re seeking and go from there, e.g., “Can you tell me how to defragment this drive?” -> “Sure, what are you solving for?”
Clear your mind at the beginning of the conversation, and maximize your listening as the conversation proceeds. In fact, the most important diagnostic that the other person will use to decide whether or not you are interested is not only what you ask but also how well you hear the response. Your attitude and motive will then reveal themselves in your further questions and responses as the conversation proceeds. Humble Inquiry does not influence either the content of what the other person has to say, nor the form in which it is said. What I have found most important is to ask myself what my motives are before I ask a confrontational question.