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The Answer Lies In The Question

A photo of Amy Colton

A colleague recently asked me what my approach to capacity building is as a state coordinator in Michigan for the Region 8 Comprehensive Center (CC). My response might surprise you. I said, “I believe asking the right question is the most powerful process for strengthening the management and governance of a state education agency so that it can effectively achieve its objectives and fulfill its mission. The right question can unleash the collective wisdom in a room and lead to bold innovative solutions.” My colleague replied, “Why are questions so important? What constitutes a right question? How do I learn to ask the right question?” My answer follows.

Region 8 CC’s work involves solving complex problems in an uncertain and changing environment with a diverse group of people. Routine answers rarely apply. This kind of work demands adaptive expertise, where teams apply their collective knowledge and lived experiences to effectively create bold solutions to novel situations. Such sharing relies heavily on relationships built on mutual trust and respect, a belief that others know things that you don’t but that are important to getting the job done, and a willingness to access your ignorance and be vulnerable within the group. To create a culture that supports being vulnerable and sharing, consultants need to move away from telling people what we think they need to know and do, and instead use a particular form of questioning called “humble inquiry.” 

Edgar H. Schein defines humble inquiry[i] in the following way:

Humble Inquiry is the fine art of drawing someone out, of asking questions to which you do not already know the answer,  of building a relationship based on curiosity and interest in the other person.

Telling is often viewed as off putting or offensive by another person. Many interpret being told as implying they don’t know anything. On the other hand, asking can be empowering, especially when it makes the thinking of others visible and advances everyone’s understanding. The answer lies in the question. As the quality of the question increases, so does the quality of the relationship and work. But not all questions are equivalent.

There is no formula for creating the perfect question, it derives from an attitude of genuine interest, curiosity, and humility. You accomplish this by minimizing your biases about the person, clearing your mind of any preconceived ideas about the topic, and being ready to actively listen. The person speaking will determine your level of interest not only from your question but how well you hear what is said. Developing these attitudes may take some learning and unlearning.

A first step in engaging in humble inquiry is to learn to reflect on what is going on in your heart and mind, your current situation, and the state of your relationships before acting. Questions you might ask yourself include

  • What is going on in my own head?
  • What do I care about?
  • What is going on in my situation?
  • What is the status of my relationships?

I ended my conversation with my colleague with an inquiry question, and I pose it to you now, “What do you plan to do with this information?”




[i] Schein, E. H. (2013). Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling. San Francisco, CA: Barrett-Koehler Publishers.