“Humble Inquiry" by Edgar H. Schein

AUTHOR: Edgar H. Schein

AUTHOR: Edgar H. Schein

When we think about diplomacy in layman’s term, we think about communication and the art of politeness. To be ‘diplomatic’ means having the skills to deal with people in a sensitive and tactful way so as to not offend or reproach. Therefore, how we use language also must be used diplomatically to ensure that our tone, intonation, emphasis and more importantly, our meaning does not misconstrued or cause unintentional upset.

But we are only humans and when put under immense emotional pressure, it is difficult to keep our emotions under control without feeling like the need to explode. To help develop the communications aspect of the art of diplomacy, we recommend the book “Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling” by Edgar H. Schein, in support of Chapter 3 - “Enhancing Emotional Intelligence” of the Diplomatic Planner. The Humble Inquiry is a great starter guide that sets out the basic principles of asking the right questions in the right way, a skills that all diplomats should possess, particularly when our very job is about influencing through the art of speech.

Diplomats are often put on the spot. Just watch any Q&A session from a conference where diplomats are asked to defend their policies against a backdrop of public demonstrations and insubordination. When put on the spot, we instantly feel threatened and can be pretty disheartening because at the end of the day, you want to do your job well and stand up for your country in the public eye. Diplomats often cannot speak for themselves. In diplomacy, there is no such thing as “me”, “I”, “mine” or “my”. When speaking on the job, your speech must reflect that of your country, therefore making statements using “us” and “our”. This can make things very difficult for diplomats who do not necessarily believe in the things they are saying, but they cannot admit that they personally do not believe in a policy position of their government. This is quite a dilemma and our communication, both verbally and non-verbally may reveal our true feelings.

Strong communications cement relationships and a lack of communication, especially in diplomacy, can have terrible consequences. When there is a breakdown of communication, there is a breakdown of diplomatic relations. The inability to rely information at the lowest levels can have devastating effects at the top. To build trust, we need to be able to ask questions that show trust and include and respect others.

Humble inquiry is about asking questions in a way that shows your colleagues that their perspectives matters, and that you respect their decisions. The author states that humble inquiry is more than just a strategy for formulating questions. It’s an attitude and takes on different forms, depending on how quickly you need an answer. You could cut to the chase and be direct, or take your time, hoping you get the information you need without offending anyone. However you decide to ask, the aim of the game is to ask your question humbly and with humility. But what does this look like in practice? 

When you use humble inquiry, you are showing that you really want to know what is in the other person’s mind. Humble inquiry is sincere by definition. People will also know how much you are based on subtle cues like the tone of voice you use or non-verbal communication like your body language. We cover training on this matter via the Diplomatic Leadership Training led by Grassroot Diplomat.

Sometimes, you will need to steer a conversation or dig deeper into a matter that interests you. The author says that this is where a diagnostic inquiry comes into play. Diagnostic inquiry means learning more about a specific point by asking questions that are directly relevant to the point. You can ask things like:

  • What made you decide to make a move?

  • What could have caused this?

  • Why did it make you feel that way?

Much in the same way, your diagnostic inquiry should be humble in the sense to not offend the person you are questioning, and feels their input is valued.

Speaking of boundaries, sometimes, our obsession with status or social rank in diplomacy may get in the way of humble inquiries. Ranks play an important role in diplomatic practices and creates barriers in developing fruitful relationships. This is not typical of all high-ranking diplomats but we must observe protocol at all times and never assume that a diplomat of higher rank is ok with dropping formalities. If anything, there are some diplomats who are flattered by their status and become more respectful and more humble in their positions. Judge accordingly but play by the rules.  

The book is full of great working examples that you apply in the practice and operation of diplomacy. However, it is important to remember that good communication relies on good relationships, and the more you practice the strategy of humble inquiry, the better you are able to demonstrate trust and interest in your conversation partner.

“Humble Inquiry” is recommended for the purposes of the Diplomatic Planner. The Diplomatic Planner is a 12-month career development toolkit for diplomacy and internationals for professionals looking to explore or grow their expertise in the field. Both books are available for purchase via Amazon. For further recommendations, insights, case studies and practicable worksheets, please join the Grassroot Diplomat Online Academy via: www.grassrootdiplomat.org/register