In a book titled Humble Inquiry a social psychologist and retired MIT professor writes about three kinds of humility: 1) “humility that we feel around elders and dignitaries; 2) the humility that we feel in the presence of those who awe us with their achievements; and 3) Here-and-now Humility, which results from our being dependent from time to time on someone else in order to accomplish a task that we are committed to.”
The author, Edgar Schein, goes on to describe how our respective cultures teach us rules of deference and demeanor: deference in the respect we show others who, for the above reasons, we regard as “having a status above our own;” rules of demeanor, in turn, to show how “superiors are supposed to act in a way that is appropriate to their status.” “For example ,” Schein adds, “when the superior is speaking, the subordinate is supposed to pay attention and not interrupt; the superior is supposed to make sense and behave in a dignified manner.”
What I found especially helpful is how the author then went to great lengths to show what it takes to get beyond a culture of expected behaviors—to trust and depth of relationship. This is where he saw the need to learn the gentle art of humble query that, when appropriate, teaches us to ask rather than to merely tell.
At the heart of Schein’s book is how important it is to know when it is timely and helpful to ask questions rather than to just give advice. This happens, he suggests, as we learn to ask questions that show an honest interest and curiosity about what others are feeling and thinking.
Interestingly, as I’ve thought about the book, I’ve been reminded of things written by James, the half-brother of Jesus who wrote about the wisdom of knowing when it’s important to be quick to listen and slow to speak (James 1:19). Have also recalled how James goes on to talk about the wisdom of humbling ourselves (going low) before the Lord who can then lift us higher than we ever could have gone on our own (James 4:6-8).
Then came a surprise. In recalling what Schein calls our need for an honest interest and curiosity about others—I began to wonder how often I’ve come to the Lord of Heaven with an honest interest and curiosity in what he wants to do—rather than just asking in ways that are little more than “telling him” what I’m thinking…
…left wondering if I’ve even begun to know what it means to come to others, and to my God… in humble query?