Asking your way to effective relationships

I came across a great book today that tackled the age old issue of communication in a refreshingly different way.

In Humble Inquiry by Edgar H Schein, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, I found a really refreshing slant on how to improve relationships – irrespective of whether they are in a personal context of a business context – the same rules apply.

Schein introduces the notion of asking versus telling, and this really made me stop and think.  Think about my own style, and also the styles I have experienced in both my corporate life and my personal life.  It gave me pause to think about how I felt when I was talked to or told, rather than being asked.  He makes the point that when we are told something we already know, or talked at, it is a put down and this in my view does not point to the basis of solid relationships.

It is easy to see where the telling style comes from .

In our society, and especially in business, knowing has value and telling for many is a way of getting that knowing on the table.  Asking signals weakness and vulnerability – not something that is usually perceived as a way of operating in the highly competitive business environment.  However, vulnerability is exactly what is required to build strong relationships.  Bringing an attitude of interest and curiosity to the table, and showing a genuine desire to build a relationship invokes a helping response on the part of the other party – precisely what is required for a collaborative relationship.  This sets up a self generating cycle.

Our society is one of time poverty – it is one where task completion often sits ahead of relationships.  Schein points out that there are cultures that are high relationship where culturally building trust is intrinsic to getting the job done, but these people often face impatience because building trust and relationships takes time.  Building trust is seen as just taking too long in environments where there are performance measures in place that reward task completion and penalise non-completion in the short term.

Relationships are essential to good communication – and there can be no argument that good communication is the cornerstone of getting things done.  Schein talks about how the higher the level of trust that exists, the better the task completion, especially in highly complex interdependent tasks.  And if we stop and think, many tasks in 21st Century business context are complex and interdependent.  The example he gives to demonstrate how we work better on tasks with people we know and trust, is the military.  In military environments, close bonds are formed between members.  Each  team member realises that their lives may depend on the bond and the trust developed.

So in business where getting things done is a measure of performance, Catch 22 is set up.  Tasks need to be done, but they are dependent on relationships, but relationships take time which means tasks don’t get done while time is being spent on the relationship.  What to do about it?  How to balance the two apparently conflicting needs?

The first step is for those in positions of leadership or “superiority” to provide an environment where subordinates can feel free to ask questions, and then develop the sensory acuity and behavioural flexibility that leads from the front, actively demonstrating a commitment to a culture of learning and tolerance.  Each individual is different, however there are some steps that can help move an individual from a “teller” to a genuinely curious “asker” and the first is to listen to yourself and ask yourself just how curious you are in your conversations – do you tell more than you ask?  What does this ratio honestly look like?

As Schein concludes, the ultimate challenge is for you to discover when you should not succumb to telling but take charge by asking.