Don’t Know? Don’t Hide. Ask and Include.

Don’t Know? Don’t Hide. Ask and Include.

I recently had the good fortune to attend and present at the 2019 Forum on Workplace Inclusion in Minneapolis. Surrounded by committed diversity & inclusion professionals presenting on a wide array of topics, I spoke about discomfort and the role it plays in inclusion conversations.

Inclusion work is uncomfortable.

Although we are all at different points on the inclusion journey, coming face to face with new experiences and new information can easily result in embarrassment, shame or retreat. Instead, we must find ways to make these challenging moments positive opportunities for growth and development.

How do we migrate these feelings from shame to growth? By moving from a confrontational, didactic training approach to an opportunity for social learning. Social, because it’s powered by the depth of our interpersonal connections, and Learning because we can’t recognize and/or accept new ideas unless we challenge our current mental models. But creating the conditions for social learning requires three important features: open and honest inquiry, an indirect or oblique approach to tackling the most pressing topics and psychological safety.

Revisiting the Unique Role of Inquiry

We’ve recently written about psychological safety and its importance to teams at every level of the organization. And more soon about this fascinating concept of obliquity, or an indirect approach to tackling the tough stuff. But in this post, I would like to revisit the unique role of inquiry in fostering inclusive learning.  

We live in a “telling” society. We train, we teach, we inform. We are rewarded for what we know and are hesitant to share what we don’t know, especially at work. But telling is dangerous – it assumes that we know what people already know (and what they don’t). Not only are we likely to be wrong, but we risk offending them, or – even worse – suggesting that we really don’t care about what they may have to contribute.

Asking Humble Questions

If we really want cultures where people feel included, we need to shift from telling to asking, and in particular, to asking what MIT scholar Edgar Schein calls “humble” questions. Humble because the questions that matter are the ones we do not know the answers to: authentic questions born in curiosity. To be humble in asking is to admit that we don’t know something, that we have something to learn (regardless of our positions). Asking genuine questions creates shared vulnerability and permits the respondent to contribute meaningfully to a level conversation.  

Questions make us feel cared about. In a job interview, we tend to feel best about our prospects when we’ve been asked a lot of questions.

But questions also make us like each other better. Know the feeling of meeting someone at a cocktail party who only talks about herself and never asks a single question? It’s hard not to walk away turned off. Recent research supports this feeling. In a study made popular by the New York Times Modern Love column, paired strangers who asked each other personal questions liked each other considerably more than control pairs who simply interacted.

If you want someone to feel a sense of belonging, then inviting – and listening – to their insights and perspectives just makes sense. An “asking culture” fosters learning, nurtures respect and creates camaraderie, collegiality and caring. Inviting their questions in turn creates trust and new avenues for learning. By practicing the tough questions, and giving each other the benefit of the doubt, we open ourselves and our mental models to the breadth and depth of a truly inclusive workplace.  

Image: Saul Steinberg, Untitled, 1961. [Public Domain] via

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Ann Kowal Smith

Ann Kowal Smith

Ann Kowal Smith is the Founder and Executive Director of Books@Work.