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Improve Communication at Work Using Humble Inquiry

In a recent Gallup survey, only 17% reported that their company has open communication3. Employee communication is a common struggle for organizations of all sizes. Try humble inquiry to improve communication at work.

Poor communication is a problem worth solving in our workplaces. High quality communication at work links to important positive outcomes, including deeper trust and greater job satisfaction1, stronger organizational commitment and more positive experiences with supervisors4, and even better innovation2.

Ready to improve communication at work?

Step 1 – Step away from our culture of communication by telling.

There is a time and a place to be direct. But many organizations become over-reliant on telling as a communication approach. Leaders tell managers to do something, managers tell teams to do something, teammates tell each other status reports and information, and the cycle continues.

In the midst of doing all of this telling, leaders, managers, and colleagues focus on conveying information and being efficient. Best case scenario, important information gets transmitted. Worst case scenario, the information and directives breed passivity, waste time repeating knowledge that already exists, and fall short in strengthening relationships and rapport.

We’re not challenging having a delegation path – delegation and mission alignment are key for strong team coordination. But what would happen if we balanced all of the telling with a deliberate effort to start asking?

Step 2 – Step into communication by asking.

To improve communication at work, do less telling. Asking questions can be empowering. Inquiry and curiosity build stronger relationships. More thoughtful communication uncovers more solutions to streamline coordination of efforts.

Questions that are really questions shift the communication experience. Asking genuine questions highlights the value each person brings to the team or organization. When you ask colleagues about things you need or want to know, you convey respect for their unique viewpoints, experiences, and perspectives.

Ready to improve communication at work? Promote balanced conversations that value contribution, active attention, and a willingness to listen.

Pitfall Alert! Not All Questions Are Created Equal

Before you just run with “Okay, instead of telling, I’m going to start asking more” hold on. Asking more questions will not necessarily lead to positive outcomes.

Step 3 – Get smart about Humble Inquiry.

Practice crafting questions that won’t backfire. Keeping humble inquiry in mind will help you improve communication at work.

Here’s a quick view of four types of inquiry:

  1. Humble Inquiry:

    Humble inquiry is “…the skill and the 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”5. To use humble inquiry, we deliberately ask questions without having answers. Each question is genuine. We are making an unbiased request to discover what’s on the other person’s mind.

    Humble inquiry isn’t just about the question we formulate. Humble inquiry requires us to minimize our own preconceptions and expectations and truly hear the other person’s responses. When using humble inquiry, we’re not influencing the content of the other person’s responses. The motive for our question is sincere: to learn about the other person out of genuine curiosity.

    Examples: “What brings you here?” or “What would you like to talk about?” or “What comes to mind for you about this new project?”

  2. Diagnostic Inquiry:

    We’re using diagnostic inquiry when we focus in on a particular part of what a person mentions. By choosing to focus on one aspect over others, we're indirectly steering the conversation and subtly influencing the other person’s mental process. There are 4 specific types of diagnostic inquiry, based on the focus of the question:

    Feelings and Reactions: Focus the other person on his/her feelings and reactions

        • “How did you react?”

    Causes and Motives: Focus the other person on his/her motivations

        • “Why do you suppose that happened?”

    Action Oriented: Focus the other person on his/her prior, current, and future actions

        • “What have you done so far? What are you going to do next?”

    Systemic Questions: Focus the other person on elaborating context for a situation

        • “What did they do then?”Depending on the relationship, context, and motives, diagnostic inquiry can be a form of humble inquiry. But as you can imagine in the examples above, diagnostic inquiry can easily become influential to a point that the questions are more like telling than asking.
  3. Confrontational Inquiry:

    We’re using confrontational inquiry when we insert our own ideas in the form of a question. Think about rhetorical or leading questions…they are basically a form of telling. That’s confrontational inquiry.

    Confrontational inquiry isn't likely to be humble inquiry. In confrontational inquiry, we are taking charge of the content of the conversation and often giving advice. In response, resistance is more likely and relationships are harder to build.

    Confrontational inquiry questions can fit into the same categories we used for diagnostic inquiry:

    Feelings and Reactions

        • “Did that make you angry?”

    Causes and Motives

        • “Do you think they responded like that because they were nervous?”

    Action Oriented

        • “Why didn’t you say something?”

    Systemic Questions

        • “Were they surprised?”Notice the difference between diagnostic questions and confrontational questions for each category. In each confrontational example, the person asking the question is inserting ideas and expectations into the questions. Instead of truly open curiosity, there are embedded assumptions.
  4. Process-Oriented Inquiry:

    Unlike the first three types of inquiry, process-oriented inquiry focuses on the quality of the conversation itself, rather than the content of a subject under discussion. We can use process-oriented inquiry to step back when we feel that a conversation has headed in the wrong direction. Questions like “What is happening?” or “Did I offend you?” help us explore dynamics and possibly redirect a conversation.

    Process-oriented inquiry can be a form of humble inquiry, depending on our motives. Or it can drift in other directions.

    Process-Oriented Inquiry as Humble Inquiry

        • “Have we gone too far?”
          • “Is this too personal?”

    Process-Oriented Inquiry as Diagnostic Inquiry

        • “Our conversation just shifted, what happened?”
          • “Why did you choose to say that in that way?”

    Process-Oriented as Confrontational Inquiry

        • “Why are you being so defensive?”
          • “Have I upset you? Are you upset?”By stepping back and evaluating how a conversation is going, process-oriented inquiry focuses on the relationship itself. This form of inquiry tends to be difficult to learn, but can be a powerful tool to reset expectations and direction during tough conversations. When used in the true spirit of humble inquiry, process-oriented inquiry can promote trust, safety, and respect.

Step 4 - Use Humble Inquiry to Improve Communication at Work and Build Relationships

To improve communication at work, take time to ask genuinely curious questions. Express interest in colleagues’ experiences and viewpoints. Actively listen to responses (watch out for the pitfall of planning a next question while a response is being given!). Build a culture of curiosity and respect, where peoples’ ideas have value and listening ears encourage sharing.


  1. Edwards, J. R., & Cable, D. M. (2009). The value of value congruence. Journal of Applied Psychology, 94(3), 654–677.
  2. Hülsheger, U. R., Anderson, N., & Salgado, J. F. (2009). Team-level predictors of innovation at work: A comprehensive meta-analysis spanning three decades of research. Journal of Applied Psychology, 94(5), 1128–1145.
  3. Mann, A., & Harter. (2016, January 7). The Worldwide Employee Engagement Crisis. Gallup.Com.
  4. Parker, S. K., Axtell, C. M., & Turner, N. (2001). Designing a safer workplace: Importance of job autonomy, communication quality, and supportive supervisors. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 6(3), 211–228.
  5. Schein, E. (2013). Humble Inquiry. Penguin Random House.
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