The Power of Unexpected Questions

The Power of Unexpected Questions

Three unrelated experiences came together in the last few weeks that led me to revisit an idea that has stayed in the back of my mind for quite some time: MIT Professor Edgar Schein’s notion of “humble inquiry.” I will hold the definition until I share the experiences:

  • The Cleveland chapter of Facing History and Ourselves, a network of public and private schools dedicated to promoting ethics, social responsibility and inclusion in curriculum and culture, hosted a day-long workshop for teachers and staff. I partnered with Facing History to facilitate a Books@Work discussion for non-teaching staff (school clerks, bus drivers, a speech pathologist and others). Participants discussed how people tell their stories and shared many of their own life experiences, but they also described their interactions with students and parents in their schools. As the session approached an end, one participant said, “I am never included in meaningful conversations like this about the children in our school. This discussion made me realize that I am offering important things to the students every day.” Later, she told one of the workshop organizers how much the session meant to her because it made her feel more valued in the school and in the network.
  • A large group of veterans at the Veterans’ Administration Domiciliary gathered for a Books@Work discussion of the short story Dead Men’s Path by Chinua Achebe; I facilitated a small group. Very early in the discussion, one vet focused on a particular word in the story and asked, “Why did the author describe the main character as a “pivotal teacher”? That one word – pivotal – led to a lengthy discussion not only of the meaning of the story, but also of what other meanings the word might hold in transition times for individuals and cultures. Insights emerged about how people pivot in times of conflict or distress. This participant asked a question that sent the story in an entirely different – and enriching – direction, one I had not anticipated.
  • I attended a talk for community leaders by futurist Jack Ulrich about trends on the horizon and beyond. His presentation was interesting, but he took us to a new level of engagement when he asked each person to turn to someone else to answer a simple question: What color are yield signs on the road? Before you read on, ask yourself this question. If you are like nearly everyone in the group, you answered yellow and you are wrong. Yield signs have been red and white for at least two decades – but we have such a strong imprint in our minds about the way they used to be that we simply stick with it. Ulrich reminded his audience that revisiting assumptions, even simple ones like the color of a yield sign, is a form of humility and a necessary virtue in a world-changing at a rapid pace.

Humble Inquiry by Edgar Schien, image via Google Books

And so I come back to the notion of humble inquiry, which Schein defines as “the fine art of drawing someone out, of asking questions to which you do not already know the answer, or building a relationship based on curiosity and interest in the other person.”

In successful inquiry, questions are open-ended enough that no one can be sure of anyone correct answer. Schein asserts that high-quality questions emerge from genuine curiosity and interest. So when a veteran asked a specific question to clarify something that he was curious about, his fellow participants got interested too – and the discussion went in an unexpected direction. Trust builds within an organization when each person’s questions – and unique answers – matter.

Ulrich reminded me that humility is a tool for seeing our own limitations and misconceptions and being able to laugh at them, as in the moment when we realized we had gotten the yield color wrong. An organizational culture of humble inquiry promotes the idea that each person brings unique perspectives that contribute to better thinking and decision-making in organizations. And it’s humble inquiry that we put into practice at Books@Work. Whether it’s school staffs, veterans, shop floor workers or community members, there is always a place for curiosity, for humility, for exploration, and for drawing out voices that want – and deserve – to be heard.

Image: Jacek Yerka, Twister, 2014, Poland, [Fair Use] via

Learn More About Books@Work or Sign Up For Our Newsletter

Karen Nestor

Karen Nestor

In more than four decades as an educator, Karen Nestor has taught at every level from early childhood through graduate school. Karen is a member of the Board of Books@Work.