Humble Inquiry: or, How to circumvent the pernicious inclination to fix other people

An emphasis on problem-solving can be problematic. And dangerous. When you set out to solve a problem, you march forward with an arsenal of assumptions: you are already convinced that a problem exists, you believe you ought to fix it, and you believe your solutions will be superior to the current state of things. That is a lot of assumptions. One does not need to look very hard to find examples of ‘problem solvers’ who only left a trail of greater problems in their wake.

In describing the deficiency and prevalence of the problem-solving bias in management and development thinking, David Cooperrider and Suresh Srivastva propose an alternative approach: appreciative inquiry. The goal of appreciative inquiry is “discovering, understanding, and fostering innovations in social-organizational arrangements and processes.” Appreciative inquiry is about curiosity, not chasing solutions for their own sake, because “a problem-solving view of the world acts as a primary constraint on its imagination…”

Consider how adopting appreciative inquiry approach might impact your approach to international development or addressing poverty. Instead of tromping into someone’s village or living room and proclaiming yourself as the fixer of their problems, you instead assume the permanent position of student. You prioritize their knowledge, not yours. Appreciative inquiry aims to expose the inherent blind spots that come with assuming you possess expertise on a subject.

This mode of thinking has profound implications for leadership and business management. How many times have you heard an executive describe their eagerness to respond to the concerns of their employees — only to hear their subordinates, in turn, express their hesitancy to speak up for fear of the potential cost to their careers or reputation within the company? How is such a chasm bridged? Appreciative inquiry invites one or more parties to approach the other in a spirit of seeking knowledge without ulterior motive or judgement.

To enact appreciative inquiry, one must assume an attitude of humility: it means learning from not giving to the other person. Asking, not telling. Edgar Schein defines humble inquiry as “the fine 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.”

Personally, I find this idea of ‘humble inquiry’ to be an indescribably liberating way of being in the world, especially in today’s ruthlessly polarized climate. It means I can discuss even the most contentious issues without needing to ‘correct’ other people’s ‘erroneous’ views. It means I can try to understand what makes other people tick, without trying to ‘solve’ the problem of their ‘delusions’ or ‘cognitive inability’ to see the truth. It means I value the process of ‘self-discovery’ for others as much as I do for myself, which means placing the utmost value on honest, curious questions. (For more along these lines, listen to And What Else? The Art and Anatomy of a Question.)

In some respects, I feel like the ‘social innovation sector’ has significantly lost its way since Cooperrider and Srivastva wrote about appreciative inquiry in 1987. Today, we are all about solving problems. We are obsessed with problems — identifying them, describing them, researching them, and fixing them. The first thing we see when we look at a community is what appears to be wrong with it. Appreciative inquiry drags this unconscious bias into the light and invites us to rethink the way we describe community itself: not as a mire of issues to address, but as the source of a continually emerging future that we are constructing together. Don’t rush in to fix it, but humbly tip-toe in to ask questions about it.

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