Do More Asking and Less Telling in Proposal Development

In my previous blog, I began by pointing out that “we all would like to believe that we are extremely observant and highly rational, especially when it comes to proposal development. Alas, there is little evidence for this in proposal development…or any other of our endeavors.”

I then briefly reviewed a new book that was written to help businesspeople make better decisions by becoming more observant and developing different ways of looking at our work and the way we make decisions. Several respondents to my blog challenged me to provide some concrete examples of how proposal professionals can pay closer attention to the ways we think and work.

In response, I will concretely examine one important technique: the gentle art of asking instead of telling.

I will do this by reviewing Edgar H. Schein’s Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling (2013). Schein, an emeritus professor of management at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, has written a brief, clearly written book about how to build better business processes and better business organizations through better communication. According to Schein, people in American businesses today face a serious challenge:

“The world is becoming more technologically complex, interdependent, and culturally diverse, which makes the building of relationships more and more necessary to get things accomplished and, and the same time, more difficult. Relationships are the key to good communication; good communication is the key to successful task accomplishment; and Humble Inquiry, based on Here-and-now Humility, is the key to good relationships.”

Schein believes that businesspeople need to do less telling and more asking even though telling rather than asking is more highly valued in American culture. From Schein’s perspective, the problem with too much telling is that it puts the other person down because it is not an equitable and balanced relationship. The person doing the telling does not need to invest anything in the other person or listen to him or her.

For Schein, there is a practical payoff for doing the opposite in the business world: as the quality of communication increases, tasks are accomplished better.

Schein’s recommendation is called Humble Inquiry. It works this way:
• When the choice is between you or me, look for a way to explore us. Access your ignorance or curiosity.
• Ask an open question to get information you need. This is a question that cannot be answered yes or no.
• Invite joint problem solving.
• Do this by making small changes in your behaviour, which avoid the need for big changes later.

For example, Schein was once consulting with Shell Australia and in the middle of a lunch, the CEO announced that Shell was losing its VP of Administration. He talked about hiring a man named Peter as a replacement, but the others VPs at the lunch said they were uncomfortable about him as VP. Schein was puzzled that the VPs liked Peter but did not want to give him the position. So, he asked a Humble Inquiry question: “What does the VP of Administration do?”

Schein received a few patronizing smiles but then one of the VPs answered the question and another said that Peter was not good in external public relations. Then another VP said, “Does PR have to be part of this job? In fact, isn’t it getting to be such a big issue in Australia with all the new environmental issues that we should have a VP of just PR?” This was a Humble Inquiry plus a suggestion. The lunch group agreed to separate out PR and then further agreed that Peter was perfect for the other VP functions. The problem was solved.

Schein thinks that we practice “optional humility” in the presence of our superiors, but the Here-and-Now Humility is missing with everyone else. We do this because we mistakenly believe that tasks can be accomplished well without building good relationships.

Schein concludes his book by reminding us that Humble Inquiry requires us to slow down, observe carefully, and be willing to listen and learn from those around us by telling less and asking open-ended questions that invite collaboration more often.

This certainly is a challenge for me and for many people in the proposal profession. But as Schein points out, in an impatient Do and Tell culture likes ours, learning how to ask humble questions may be a better way to get things done.


  1. Michele Griffin Campione
    October 14, 2014

    Agree, more us learned by asking questions. I find that sometimes, though, I ask questions as a way of deferring the conversation from myself, as people are always asking me questions. Balance, as timing, most critical.

    • TheProposalGuru
      October 14, 2014

      Thank you for your comments. Yes, striking a balance is very important and also an art.


Leave a Reply