same advice: “Now take a few minutes just to reflect quietly on
what you have learned in general so far.”
American society offers numerous obstacles to the
practice of humble inquiry. First are our cultural biases, which
might be captured by the usually laudatory phrase “rugged
individualism.” As Schein says, “we value task accomplishment
over relationship building and either are not aware of this
cultural bias or, worse, don’t care and don’t want to be bothered
with it.” In sports, business, politics, and daily life, we look for
the star, the achiever. One of Schein’s most pointed examples
is that while the United States has many of the world’s fastest
runners, we often lose international relay races because we fail
to pass the baton effectively.
Besides valuing achievement over connection, we value telling
more than listening. Anyone experienced in cross-cultural
conflict will agree that in general Americans “get impatient with
spending time over relationship-building dinners before getting
down to work.” (This bias seems to pervade American thinking.
I once watched the changing of the
guard at Buckingham Palace and heard
an American say “Back home, we’d get
in there, change that guard, and get
out.”). If we ask questions, they are not
The dilemma in U.S. culture
is that we don’t distinguish
what I am defining as Humble
Inquiry carefully enough from
leading questions, rhetor-
ical questions, embarrassing
questions, or statements in
the form of questions, . . which
are deliberately provocative
and intended to put you down.
But there are psychic obstacles as well,
and Schein treats these in a separate
chapter, drawing on both intra- and
inter-personal research. He reminds us
that we send others signals of which we
are not aware, that they do the same
with us, and that we also deliberately
conceal much of ourselves in non-intimate contexts. “Humble Inquiry,” he
suggests, “functions as an invitation
to be more personal and is therefore
the key to building a more intimate
relationship.” Further, he says, we select
what we observe from the available
data, react to it on levels of which we
may not be fully aware, and proceed
to judgment and intervention on the
basis of limited, often distorted, beliefs.
While we cannot eliminate these factors,
humility allows us to consider, and
perhaps minimize, their effects.
Some readers may object that there is not a great deal
new in these observations, and they would be partly right.
Self-awareness, consciousness of our biases, honing of our
questioning and listening skills, are not Copernican discoveries.
Reading Humble Inquiry I was reminded of many other voices:
Stephen Covey’s “Be efficient with things, effective with
people,” Robert K. Greenleaf’s concept of Servant Leadership,
and Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, to name just a
few. Not a bad group of peers.
Schein’s aim in Humble Inquiry is not, as it was in his
monumental early work, to synthesize mountains of research
and practice into a scholarly tome, but to offer practical
advice in a simple way. He offers those in the field of conflict
resolution a doubly valuable resource. As practitioners, we can
turn to him for a deepening and enriching of mediative values.
As trainers, coaches, or educators, we can use his strategies to
build capacity for humble inquiry in our clients, thus doing our
part to foster a culture of humble inquiry.
JEFFREY M. COHEN is an ACR Director and chairperson of ACR’s Ethics Committee.
He is a professional mediator in Albany, New York.
MICHAEL LANG was the 2012 recipient of ACR’s John M. Haynes Distinguished
Mediator Award. He is a former president of the Academy of Family Mediators and
is a Professor of Conflict Analysis and Management at Royal Roads University in
Victoria, B. C.
CHARLES PILLSBURY is a mediator, lawyer, and community activist in New Haven,
Connecticut. He has been a featured speaker at various ACR programs, including ACR’s
2010 Conflict Resolution Day webinar on “Creative Uses of Conflict Resolution Skills.”
SUSAN RAINES, Ph.D., is Editor-in-Chief of ACR’s Conflict Resolution Quarterly and
is an Associate Professor at Kennesaw State University, in Kennesaw, Georgia.
JONATHAN ROSENTHAL is ACR’s Sections Director and is the Executive Director of
Alternative Dispute Resolution Programs for the District Court of Maryland.
COLIN RULE is the 2013 recipient of ACR’s Mary Parker Follett Award, and is the
chairman and Chief Operating Officer of Modria, an online dispute resolution service
provider in Silicon Valley, California.
DUANE RUTH-HEFFELBOWER is Co-Chair of ACR’s Family Section, and is an associate professor and Director of the Center for Peacemaking and Conflict Studies at
Fresno Pacific University in Fresno, California.
Michael Spangle, Ph.D., is the co-author of “How Mediators Facilitate Forgiveness: Moving Clients Toward Resolution” published in the Fall 2012 issue of
ACResolution Magazine, and is Professor of Communication and chair of the
Behavioral & Social Sciences Department, Regis University in Denver Colorado.
TERRY WHEELER was President of ACR in 2005-6 and is an attorney, mediator,
facilitator, trainer and program design consultant in Columbus, Ohio.
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