We take it for granted that telling is more valued than asking. Asking the right questions is valued, but asking in general is not. To ask is to reveal ignorance and weakness. Knowing things is highly valued, and telling people what we know is almost automatic because we have made it habitual in most situations. We are especially prone to telling when we have been empowered by someone else’s question or when we have been formally promoted into a position of power. I once asked a group of management students what it meant to them to be promoted to “manager.” They said without hesitation, “It means I can now tell others what to do.” Of course, the dangerous and hidden assumption in that dictum is that once people are promoted that they will then know what to do. The idea that the manager might come to a subordinate and ask, “What should we do?” would be considered abdication, failure to fulfill your role. If you are a manager or a leader, you are supposed to know what to do, or at least appear to know. Knowing things is highly valued in most cultures. With age we supposedly get wiser, which usually means knowing more. So we go to older people to get answers and expect to get them. When the supplicant climbs the mountain to reach the wise guru, and his question is answered with another question, we put this into a cartoon and laugh about it. Telling is not only expected and respected, but it feels so good when we think we have solved someone else’s problem. What is more satisfying than giving advice?……
——Saying to oneself that one should ask more and tell less does not solve the problem of building a relationship of mutual trust. The underlying attitude of competitive one-upmanship will leak out if it is there. Humble Inquiry starts with the attitude and is then supported by our choice of questions. The more we remain curious about the other person rather than letting our own expectations and preconceptions creep in, the better our chances are of staying in the right questioning mode. We have to learn that diagnostic and confrontational questions come very naturally and easily, just as telling comes naturally and easily. It takes some discipline and practice to access one’s ignorance, to stay focused on the other person. If we learn to do this, the positive consequences will be better conversations and better relationships. For many situations it may not matter; we may not care. But especially if you are dependent on others—if you are the boss or senior person trying to increase the likelihood that your subordinates will help you and be open with you—then Humble Inquiry will not only be desirable but essential.
From Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling