The Art of Humble Inquiry as a Pathway to Safety Improvement

by Gabrielle Carlton on August 9, 2016

in Communication and Consultation,Gabrielle Carlton,Humble Inquiry

Gab Carlton’s first article republished by demand. Seems to be a topic of interest at the moment. With 43 comments, one of our most popular articles.  The message here is so simple yet contradicts orthodox and contemporary safety education, training and practice: “telling is more risky than asking”, “We see ‘asking’ as a ‘weakness’ or being ‘ignorant’ so we avoid it”

The Art of Humble Inquiry as a Pathway to Safety Improvement

clip_image001I was chatting with a good friend and fellow colleague, Brett (not his actual name) the other day. Our discussion was on the importance of effective conversation leading to engaging workers. Brett stated that it was easy, he just ‘has a chat with the guys’ about what’s going on and then he ‘tells them what he wants done’. Brett is a safety manager in a large corporation.

This is not the first conversation I have had like this in my many years as a risk and safety consultant. Yet after my conversation with Brett I questioned whether this was indicative of our industry or society as a whole. Schein (2013) eludes to this in his book Humble Inquiry. Schein (2013, p. 10) states that our culture is ‘biased towards telling’. We value the art of ‘knowing’ and fixing problems rather than understanding and focussing on relationships. We see ‘asking’ as a ‘weakness’ or being ‘ignorant’ so we avoid it.

We only have to go so far as a Google search on risk and safety management (accessed 10 February 2014) to see the fixation on solutions focussed on systems and processes. One of the links leads us to the Safe Work Australia Code of Practice: How to Manage Work Health and Safety (2011). This code (2011, p. 4) details ‘a step-by-step process’ for managing risk. According to this document it’s a four-step process; identify, assess, control and review.

Lets turn to the textbook for Work Health and Safety Certificate IV and Diploma (2014). A 368-page book on the ‘process’ of risk and safety management. ‘Telling’ the safety student how to ‘do’ risk and safety in the workplace. Even the safety culture section details a process on how to integrate a ‘safety culture’. All about ‘telling’ and the ‘how’ of risk and safety and no mention of people focussed safety, relationship building or collaboration!

As a risk and safety professional myself I find this a concern. This is the standard textbook for risk and safety education. Nothing on social engagement, relationship building, engaging people or collaboration. Also having undertaken a degree in safety myself I know that it isn’t any better in most risk and safety postgraduate studies.

So is it any wonder that my good friend Brett (who also has the same degree under his belt) thought that his way of ‘effective’ risk and safety management was all about ‘telling’.

What this industry needs more of is a focus on how to engage workers, how to build relationships and collaborate more. There is no simple and easy formula either. We need to accept that ‘asking’ is not about being ‘ignorant’ but is essential in relationship building. Schein (2013, p. 9) outlines this here:

If I don’t care about communicating or building a relationship with the other person, then telling is fine. But if part of the goal of the conversation is to improve communication and build a relationship, then telling is more risky than asking (Schein, 2013 p. 9)

In order to build a relationship we need to develop trust. We can develop trust by ‘empowering’ the other person and just as quickly destroy it by stamping all over people. Schein calls method of ‘upbuilding’ others through conversation as ‘Humble Inquiry’. Schein (2013, p. 10) further states that there is growing evidence that we can achieve better ‘safe’ work tasks through the art of ‘Humble Inquiry’.

Gabrielle Carlton


Gabrielle Carlton

Gabrielle Carlton

Director & Principal Consultant at Resylience
Gabrielle Carlton
Gabrielle Carlton is a specialist in human factors in risk and safety. Gabrielle provides training, advice, coaching and mentoring for leaders and managers. Gabrielle has well over 10 years experience as an advisor and consultant to industry as well as a strong personal background across a range of industries including: electrical generation & distribution, aged and disability in large residential facilities, construction, property management, rail, manufacturing, government bodies and corporations. Gabrielle is able to use her expertise in analysis, training, organisation psychology, research, systems auditing and human behaviour to serve a wide range of needs. She has conducted a Probability Risk Analysis (PRA) using Resylience's methodology Culture and Organisation Modelling in Risk (COMIR). This work was conducted with National power generation companies. Gabrielle has developed and delivered a range of risk and safety leadership consultancies to Tier 1 organisations in Australia.
  • Charles Phillips

    Conceptionally interesting but very little detail about examples about HOW this type of conversational safety relationship has been implemented by you or Brett. It would be more helpful if you had specifics applications.

    • David Hickey

      Hi Charles,

      I think you’ll find there’s only so much you can convey in one blog post. In a nutshell, the effective application of ‘humble enquiry’ is about suspending our inherent bias to ‘tell’ people about what they should be doing and ‘asking’ what they are doing.

      Reading Edgar Schien’s book is always a good place to start.

  • Why would you pay attention to this data on A1? It’s being fed to you by experts? Could it be that you only want to believe what you want to believe ? I wonder what A1 believes? Read something on educational anthropology and learning, or watch some more experts on TED, because you learn by being told.

  • Mark


    AI is alive and evolving fast (this is not science fiction or a Hollywood movie). AI is 100% NOT an inanimate object or ever will be, but don’t assume for one neuron though, that AI cannot be as a human or be part of human thinking processes.

    We cannot compare AI to the complexity of a human/animal brain yet, and AI is probably 50,000 BC in timeframe (just a guess to make my point), but have you heard of Moore’s Law? and Deep Learning?

    What does the brain use to power it?
    How does it transfer and store info/data?…its all electric.

    Go on, ask a neuroscientist…Why is neuroscience and robotics/AI working even closer than ever before?

    What about neural networks being developed; basically networks systems that mimic the behaviour of the brain. Just like the brain, these computer networks can gather information and react to it (computer AI heuristics). They can build up an understanding of what objects look or sound like etc, then make decisions based on what they have been programed (told). AI can now even beat a Human at a game of Chess (the ultimate game of thinking and strategic planning).

    When you buy a computer, you turn it on and it starts up and runs some basic programs to get it working, but if you want it to do things, you have to add program…we humans are the same…

    In the future, a human may just have a connection via some plug in the skull connected to the brain to make all workers safe…laugh all you like, but we are already experimenting with this now. Remember, it was only about 100 years ago when we were told we would never fly like a bird…Some thinkers ‘resisted’ this idea and look at us now, see how important resisting is!!!

    Everything outside basic instinct has to be learned from data (information)…we are not born with the skills that make us educated humans. We do not know what a car is, what a sweet is, what a tree is, what water is or who Dr Rob Long is etc etc unless we have been told.

    A Kalahari Bushman does not know what a coke bottle is until some white man throws it from his plane (from one of my favourite movies of all time, THE GODS MUST BE CRAZY). If I took a Baby born today from an Australian hospital and gave it to the these Kalahari Bushman, then a Kalahari Bushman is what they would be.

    Happy Days

  • No wonder you think that learning requires data input, no one in neuroscience would support such an idea. How on earth you can apply human attributes like heuristics to an inanimate object is unbelievable. You are welcome to you anthropology, make it up as you go along.

  • Mark

    Rob, AI.can and does learn it uses hueristics just like a human

  • Sorry Dave, it may seem like that but it’s not how it works. The appearance of learning by injection is our attributed perception, humans don’t work on the data process like a computer, computers don’t ‘learn’.

    • There you go – i know some people like that! lol

  • Mark

    Spot on dave…

  • The brain is nothing like a CPU and the human mind is nothing like a computer.

    • But Rob – you still have to punch the information into some people! LOL – unlike a computer, usually more than once though I suppose! Aaargggh I wish I could tell all my difference between computers and humans jokes here!
      I wish I had a Ctrl-Alt-Delete sometimes!

  • Mark

    Why do I continue to resist the evidence-based position of experts?

    Good question? – I don’t, you assume I do because I just don’t follow or accept what I am being told as “it” or “the only way”.

    If the experts are saying that the only way you get ‘data’ is from nothing, then I will still not agree with this. Maybe in 50 years time, some expert will say that; we can only learn from what we are exposed to, we only learn from being told (by being shown, by our senses, by observation, by art, by gut feeling, by affection etc) these are all methods of being told (in my opinion).

    In my opinion, a brain is just like a CPU, it cannot see, hear, listen, or get any information by itself. It has to be told (given data) by a keyboard, camera, microphone, receptors or anything else plugged into it, just like a brain, it is nothing without data. If it has been given a program, it has been told what to do, if it needs to make a choice, it uses data and the program to learn, but it needs the data first, it needs to be told. A computer does not know how to drive a car until it has been told how to do it. A dog does not know how to fetch a ball until it’s been told how to do it. A human, does not know how to be human unless it has been educated (told) to be so. A native did not know how to be European until it was told by force to be so.

    There have simply been experts that have been disproven throughout the ages, sometimes by a non expert. Sometimes a person can come in and see what the expert does not see, what do they call it, green eyes/fresh eyes or something.

    Nothing is certain, only to those bound to past evidence. Can you imagine where we would be if we still thought that electrocution cured mental illness, or that many illnesses was due to too much fluid (blood) in the body, so cutting veins to release blood was a good thing.

    If you don’t question, how will you know if the facts are true or not? Is there anything faster than the speed of light? Or is there something else we just don’t know about yet that tells us different.

    People once thought grains of sand were the building blocks of what we see around us. Then the atom was discovered, and it was thought inseparable, until it was split to reveal protons, neutrons and electrons. These too, seemed like fundamental particles, before scientists discovered that protons and neutrons are made of quarks. The smallest thing is not a Atom as once thought, we now know of Quarks, but it that the smallest thing, what if small was infinity, surely there has to be something that makes up something?.

    If you don’t understand how I think, or why I ask many questions, then maybe there has not been a study on why people question and resit common knowledge. All my life I have been around concrete thinkers and we wonder why things don’t change!. Change requires questioning; change requires people to resist what is commonly thought, regardless of the masses.

    Why do you assume everything studied is correct?

    How many times in history has someone challenged something believed true by the masses, but as it turned out it was a false?

    I simply question and doubt things because many things I see make no sense to me in the big picture.

    I may not be formally educated, and as you know, I am self educated. I was left to educate myself after the common practice of schooling (no comment here) left me mostly illiterate. Most people would not know the amount of self education I have punished myself with over the years to get to a point where I am at now, and then some think they have the right to put me down because I studied and learnt things. While people were looking at Facebook and watching celebrities on TV and spending all day watching a football game drinking beer, I was being told by whatever means I could get to learn from. If I did not seek to have my head filled with current data, then I would still be running 1980 software in my cognitive CPU and looking at that old set of dusty encyclopaedias written by some printing company or religion last printed in 1968.

    I am not afraid to tell my story, I am not afraid of being called uneducated etc, I have been told most of my life about what people think, if I were not to resist such negativity, who would I be?

    Happy days.

  • Mark, if as you claim you have no expertise in the area, why do you continue to resist the evidence-based position of experts ?

  • Mark

    All good.

    I didn’t think you would answer this question. And regardless of my lack of education, don’t blame me, blame the schooling system were kids like me get left out and ignored in the back of the class. Blame cognitive and learning abilities, blame maturity levels, blame external factors etc. Maybe I could have been a doctor or an engineer…but I was not given the right methodology for me to learn like most of other common systematic principles that are required for learning. And as I have written before, memory is the key to being smart…I cannot remember detail that well, I cannot recite what is written in book by others and then transfer that information as if I deserve the title of being smart.

    I wish you would stop making things personal and concentrate on the argument presented.

    Anyway…I rest my case at this point of time in forfeit of the argument against; the need for facts (data) before listening/learning.

    “To know what a book is about, you have to read it first. To learn its knowledge, you must study it. If the book is about instruction (non-fiction), and that instruction is needed, then you must practice it. The goal is to acquire 100% knowledge of the info given to you by many means” MD

    I will endeavour to send this argument to as many professionals as I can over the next month, to get to the truth…

    (again sorry for any sphelin mistakes etc but I type this stuff mostly on my phone and I am useless at spelling anyway, and to be totally honest who gives a crap!)

  • Mark, I don’t even think this way, I give up. In the future after I tell you something and you don’t learn, I will understand it wasn’t the methodology.

  • Mark

    No Rob, Learning is very important if you want to perfect something. And I agree with you 100% that you learn from experience and learning is very important, there is no doubt in my mind about this. But you have to be told the correct data first.

    Everything I am learning is from people like you, from books, from observations, from my senses etc. I am being told.

    Everything that I gain in knowledge past basic primordial instincts is being told to me by some means or another.

    In my example about the kids being told 1+1 =3…this proves that the data is more important than learning, because we only learn what we are told and if that data is wrong…what have you learned?.

    If I told a young boy for the first time (does not know what a snake is) that King Brown Snake is friendly, not poisonous and just like the boys pet lizard, that boy would have no fear of that snake, then go and pick it up to play with it, then in under 10min he be dead…not a good way to learn for yourself.

    If I told a girl that a hot chilli pepper was sweet, then she takes a bite and it burns her mouth, her taste buds told her two things, Don’t trust an adult (be more carful next time and take a small bit first), second, that a chilli is hot, not sweet. If the girl was not told what hot or sweat was, the sensation would be yak or yum.

    In my other example where I asked you to read a passage, you had not idea and could not learn because the info was not there.

    To prove that telling is more that verbal, I used a deaf person who can only be told by supplementary ways (not telling).

    Let me put in another way to put this argument to bed…thinking….thinking…OK try this one…and for once answer the question.

    ROB; can you tell me the general sequence of how we learn (A, B or C)

    A – Told, listen, practice, learn
    B- Learn, practice, told, listen
    C- Practice, Listen, learn, told


  • Mark, so therefore (by your response) being told doesn’t invoke learning. As you state yourself you have very little formal learning and would now know of the work of the foundational educationalists (Dewey, vigotsky, Gardner , Peters, Frieier etc) and have no expertise in education, curriculum, pedagogy or learning theory yet you know I am wrong about how people learn. Because I have told you about it and you still don’t want to learn about it, so telling is therefore an ineffective mode of learning. You make it clear in your response that you only learn by experience.

  • Mark

    Rob, you cannot say that I am not open to learning. That is like me saying you are closed minded and bound by what is written…the earth is round, not flat. Learning for me is not just accepting what is known, learning for my is a personal discovering, and I do not accept anything on face value, or on the merits of some prior genius/s. if I did this, then I would not be a thinker, just a book of known knowledge were there is nothing to think about, just to memorise the known. For me, life is more that what is known.

    I think there is a difference between instinct and learning. You cannot learn instincts, and instincts cannot make you drive a car or tie a shoelace or use a computer. Instincts provides the bare basics for use to build on, instinct does not make you into a doctor etc.

    Observation I feel is being part of being told (Its on the side of education, not on the side of listening/learning). Copying someone is being told (as I said telling is not just talk from humans). I deaf person learns by vision, and they are still being told by what they see, if you disagree with this, then all deaf people would be stupid, as there is no other way they could learn…a blind person is told via touch…a deaf, blind and a person who cannot feel pain or sensation if told nothing.

    In relation to kids bending their knees, this would be just instinct and basic mechanics (its easier and safer for a child to bend their knees for a short time), they don’t do it because its good for their back. It requires more effort to get up off the ground if they were siting. Instinct tells us to preserve energy, to preserve energy, we squat. Squatting for a short period of time is better and more efficient than sitting or bending over. Look at a builder reading a plan on the ground, they squat, not sit, or bend over as both the latter require more effort. A child appears to do the same thing, if the task is taking to long, they end up sitting because the effort required to squat (plus comfort) for a long time is more than sitting, this is self preserving instinct.

    How do you learn that something is hot? by touching it and being told from your pain receptors that it hurts. You don’t know what hot is unless you have been told, you only know pain. Instinct did not tell you anything was hot, you had to be told.

    Anyway…I still feel we have to be sufficiently supported to learn and explore new experiences, if not, all you have is instinct…nearly not enough to survive or become a smart human. If we humans did not have learn so much via being told 95% of what we need by some means, we would be like a tadpole or a sea turtle. We would not need to live as group and be nurtured.

    Without being an expert, I would say it looks like this from the time you are borne;

    You live being nurtured, supported by instinct, then once you are able to start learning, you start to get told by (observation, listening, facial expression, punishments, rewards, affection, pain, comfort etc etc) about everything. Then you once you have been told enough, you then practice it until you get it right and hopefully pass on the knowledge on to keep the species going.

    I do not think that a human child (lets say at age 3) left to defend for themselves would survive very long. And this is the argument here, outside of instinct, you are left only to be told everything.

    At this point of time, I feel there is no other way to learn other that being educated (told, shown) how to do.

  • Not sorry for myself, I don’t think you are open to learning but rather just want to hold to your own assumptions, there is no reputable research evidence to support either your definition of knowledge or learning.

  • Mark

    No need to be sorry, for it is not me who is wrong…(keeping it light-hearted)

    To have knowledge, you have to be told first, and then you go out and play, experiment etc. I just cannot see, nor does it make any sense that you can drive a car, know how to shoot a gun, tie a shoe lace without being told first. Your answers you give prove little. I have given valid examples and you cannot explain what you did not know or if the child learning 1+1 = 3 is borne from wrong data, therefore the learner has learned the wrong thing (not good).

    I am not disputing that you cannot be fully knowledgeable without practice…but a child would not know what the army was, or even who Rambo was if they were not told first. Then when the got into the army, they were told a completely different real story, they were then told about the new ways and then you went out and practiced what you were told. If raised a child and treated it only as a dog, the a dog is all it would be. I could teach it to bark (it would never hear human language) teach it to bite a person it does not know etc. The reason the child remains like a dog is because it was not told anything else. There is nothing complex about this.

    You keep turning the core argument into something else. The simple fact is you have to have data before you can do or try anything outside basic human requirements. You cannot just keep saying everything you have been told all your life disputes what I am saying because of the simple fact, you were told all your life from books, or whatever. You have practiced and put into action everything you have been told. Your 40 years of experience no means you can tell others, then someone like Dave can go out and start of where you were 40 years ago. Then when Dave is 60, he will be telling naïve young ones what he knows…the cycle continues.

    And as for the dux who could not change a tyre, if someone had of told him (by both talk and showing him first) then I bet he could after that. The if he wen home and practiced for a week every night, I bet he could change a tyre better and fast than you.

    This argument is not about becoming good at something or experiencing something after you were told.

    Dave…how did you learn to drive a car…in fact, let’s go way back…how did you even know what a car was?

    • I think we are all on the same page. Of course you can learn some things by just being told. If you tell a kid that 1+1=3 they may accept that but they haven’t learned to be a mathematician and soon they will figure out it was wrong when they have other life experiences. Not sure if you have kids Mark but it is amazing how much they learn before they can talk (be told) or walk, this is by instinctively trying stuff and just absorbing what is going on around them. They even learn to bend their knees when picking stuff up (or they fall over). Does anyone walk the streets telling random people what time it is? But if they came up and asked?

      A mate just said to me (excuse any offense): “I am glad I was always told and brought up to be a good Catholic because everything I do now just seems so norty!”

  • Sorry Mark, all the research evidence I have worked on over 40 years in education says this not the case. Maybe sex might help, I can be told all about it but until it is experienced I wouldn’t call that knowledge. Even the idea of knowing inn this sense is complex.

    • I think you nailed it Rob – so many examples of that:

      My son couldn’t wait to drive, read all the books, listened to his mates stories, knew the rules, watched me, was cocky and confident about what a good driver he already was – then he got his L plates and found it weren’t that easy!

      When I did my recruit course with the army we had all these gung-ho kids turn up having read all they war stories, seen all the movies, studied the tactics of military leaders, bought all the you-beaut gear, thought they were Rambo (First Blood had just been released) – didn’t last a week

      I remember driving past and stopping for the Dux of our School stranded on the side of the road with a flat tyre – he had the manual out but just couldn’t turn the words and pictures into reality and change that flat tyre!

      How many pure academics could cut it in the real world? That’s not a generalization as I am sure many can and do.

  • Mark

    Maybe I will have one more attempt to put my case in for that telling is more important that learning.

    Say I was teaching grade ones that 1+1 = 3

    One clever student asks how 1+1 = 3 and I say, the + equals 1, i.e. 1 1 1=3 (there is no logic here, but to a child it could make sense)

    So these kids have now learned that 1+1=3

    It does not matter how important the learning was, the data was wrong, imagine telling a student doctors that a appendix is a heart and a liver is a lung…

    I understand that learning is complex, this is not the argument, the argument is simply what is more important; Telling/teaching or learning/listening. You are saying learning/listening is and I am saying telling/teaching.

    There both important, but you cannot have a class of fully trained doctors without telling/teaching first…you cannot learn first. And it could take 10 mins to be told something, and days to perfect it. This could be why we get told 5% of the time and it takes 95% to become good at what we were told.

    And if teachers spend a term learning about the psychology of teaching and many kids need tutors (due to many reasons including 40 kid classrooms) and kids are not being educated to meet individual learning styles and failing at school… then something is amiss.

    I also agree all three complement each other, but I think the ingredients, methods and tools have to be told about first and these things understood before the student can begin to practice.

    Anyway, that’s my argument

  • Mark, not sure we need the imposed dichotomy on telling, learning and listening, I don’t think these are opposed but rather complement each other except to say, there is much more to learning than these few methods. As for the 95% to 5%, again the research demonstrates we continue to learn in this ratio not by being told. Unfortunately, the whole of your logic about doctors or how people learn etc is not supported by the research, unless you are able to stand back from your attributions and study the evidence I guess the discussion will just go in circles. This is why people study education before they can become a teacher so that they can discover about learning beyond binary dichotomies and simple observation. For example, if one chooses to do an education degree they would spend at least a term (of their 4 years) learning about educational psychology. The proportion of time spend between lecture and discovery is about 95% to 5% lecture. Your interpretation of the wild children example again attributes simple interpretations but these examples are much more complex as to influences on learning, learning is complex, contextual, social, psychological, anthropological, political etc Your examples actually demonstrate the opposite, that people learn through all these methodologies and much by an osmotic process, that is, they lean by methods not told but experienced and observed. I wish you would embrace some academic study, it would make such a difference to the scope of your thinking.

  • Mark

    Rob, not questioning your experience, this is just my view on things so again it just part of how I learn, and I am sharing my journey of leaning.

    This debate is about telling/teaching against learning/listening. My argument is that telling is more important than learning because this is where we get all our knowledge from. For me telling includes delivering information, showing someone something, explaining something, reading something, looking at something and even covers your own little rational voices telling you to stuff (that we often don’t listen to)…learning is what you do with the knowledge and because we can’t know what someone does with knowledge, it is therefore secondary to data.

    I 100% agree with you that we ‘learn’ best from play, practice etc, but each time you play or practice you are only learning and practicing after being told something (because you have no idea of the tangible outcome until something is finished); told via taste buds that mud does not taste good, told via senses that something hurts if it has a sharp end, told via senses that red things are hot. I think you can only learn all these things by being told by some means (Does not have to be from another human).

    Give a child some building blocks for the first time and they may put one on top of another (just like a monkey can) for no reason, but I bet the child does won’t know how to make a house or box until told how to. A child may learn 95% before the age of 7, but it is probably only 5% of what they need to know as an adult, the 95% of adult learning has to come from being told.

    When we need to learn a specific or serious topic as an adult (like practicing medicine), we are being told by known knowledge (books, videos, classes, practical etc) first and is the only way I think we can learn, you cannot learn this stuff without being told first, without getting stuff to fill the vessels.

    When a trainee doctor is using a scalpel for the first time, they have been told what it is, how to hold it, how to use it, how to hold the body part, where to make the first cut…they then practice the task after being told until they reach the equivalence of the said knowledge. Even when you experiment novel, you are being told of the findings…you seek to be told the answers to your questions. There is no other way to learn; I don’t think you can learn by teaching, tutoring, coaching etc as these are methods to tell/deliver the data (like a channel directing water, water being the data that needs to be told, and the channel being the way it’s delivered, Dave’s partner is a channel so to speak). These things are the means to tell and teach what is known up to that point of time. This is what I meant when I said that teaching and telling are much the same, I really meant they go hand in hand (on the same side, the other side is learning/listening, so sorry for this confusion.

    Learning such things as taste, sensation etc (all basic human stuff) I think does come from discovery as you say (you can only learn what sweet is when you have tasted it), but this would have to be totally different to what an adult needs to learn. Learning more than basic stuff goes beyond the skills required to be a simple animal (human). If a child reaches the age of 7 and they have not been told anything past their own discovery, then all they will be is what is known to them to that point.

    If for example we look at Feral or Wild children (humans raised with animals without or with little human interaction), these children do not act like humans and some did not even learn to walk, so this must prove that we even need to be told on how to walk, I don’t do see any evidence of a child just getting up and walking without prior attempts and support by others. For some reason we are not like a horse that can walk in a few hrs, we seem to replicate and copy. I am sure you would have read about these kids but for other that don’t know…look up; The Fiji Chicken Boy…Oxana Malaya of Ukraine…and heaps of other examples. Also have a look at studies done to prove or disprove that these children could learn basic stuff after being told (shown), meaning they were not stupid/dumb/retards etc. There is also children raised in Russian orphanages who were grossly neglected, they resembled wild children also, little human nature.

    These wild children while being able to survive like the animals they replicate, they would never be able to be a doctor, because they have not been told all the necessary stuff required to have the brain needed to be an educated human. The brain did not develop because no stuff was given to fill the vessels.

    I am going to give an experiment I just thought up and want anyone to tell me what they learned, and how they can practice it… please read the follow paragraph very carefully;

    When , . , , .
    What did you learn and can you practice it.

    In relation to why people (including children) don’t like being told, I also have a midnight theory; I think it is a natural disposition to be cynical about being told stuff. Can you imagine a world where we all just listened and did what we were told; we would still be back in the dark ages at best (there would be no novel, not improvement). Maybe this goes hand in hand with risk taking (you don’t know if a berry is poisonous unless you first try it). We don’t like being told because it’s not part of successful evolution. We want to do it our own way because each own way is a different pathway, just like every human is a different model. Meaning we are constantly evolving to suit the new. It’s a pretty simple concept, but to me it makes sense.

    If you keep telling to a minimum, then the data will only be at a minimum. You might let the students bounce ideas around until they get to you knowledge, and that great, but you still have to tell them more than they know otherwise why are they there?

    I would also say people learn well of you because not only are you knowledgeable, you also good at teaching and building relationships to gain trust.

    The training was fun because I made it fun, but there was much telling and those who had done their first aid were telling what they knew. The ones who did not know, learned simply because the data being told was given in a way that many learn, hand on and playing…which is as you say the best way to learn.

  • Mark, doctors in their learning mostly ‘discover’ what works through prac, this is where they apply their learning and learn by experience. They may read about anatomy but ‘learn’ best when they actually hold the scalpel, they learn by feeling, trial and error and a host of implicit learning processes not by being ‘told’. Learning by experience is not being ‘told’ but happens much by absorption and feeling. This is what Chiminensky talks about as ‘flow’, often the best learning is creating and inventing, what children and adults do as play. No-one tells kids about many things as they develop, they learn about it first as young as 3 months by putting it in their mouth, their tongue informs them of such things as shape and taste years before anyone can ‘tell’ them about it. A study of child development will show you that the first 7 years are about 95% learning by not being told. Hey and they even learn about their genitals by playing with them. Yes, they get ‘told’ not to play with it, and yes, they keep playing with it. So let’s get over the fixation with ‘telling’ as a primary for of learning, it is the opposite.

    People tend not to listen to what they are ‘told’ unless their is a relationship of trust and mutuality and they only develop ownership in their learning when it is experienced, this is why in teacher training a large amount of time is spent in prac. Teaching and telling are not the same thing, facilitating learning is the best mode of teaching, even the notion of pedagogy is about walking with not ‘telling’, it’s about relationship with the mentor, creating space and experiences so that learning and discovery are experienced in the learner. For example, this medium of internet is so poor for learning, because there is no relationship, we don’t even know each other, you can’t reflect and I can’t reflect, so the ‘telling’ is not likely going to be effective. BTW, most ‘on-line learning’ is not about learning.

    I find it very difficult to translate 26 years of full time learning and study in this internet medium, so much of the formative stuff in learning is missing. But, hose who come and join in the learning with me in relationship at Uni pretty soon drop most of the old myths they were holding on to and engage in new ways of safety and engaging in risk. Without ‘letting go’, embracing new questions, moving out of a shallow knowledge base and having the real will to know, there is likely to be no learning.

    When I undertake training or teach at Uni I keep telling to an absolute minimum, instead creating experiences where the creativity and intuition of the learner is engaged and they own the learning process because they join things together and ‘discover’ how things make sense. This is why formal learning contexts vary so much, poor teachers indoctrinate and ‘tell’ but rarely well received but the teacher-as-facilitator is engaged and held in relationship, the telling teacher is usually the bane of jokes and has no relationship with the students. The good teacher tries as much as possible to develop relationships so the student has the security to let go, to embrace new things and engage with the new learning. It’s then up to the student, the teacher can tell as much as they want but unless the learner chooses to let go and engage the teacher the telling will remain as noise.

    Isn’t it interesting that your glove experience was not about telling but ‘discovery’, relationship, enjoyment (feeling) and not about telling. This approach is motivational because it engages and creates meaning for the learner.

  • Mark

    Yes Dave, you are telling your kids the whole knowledge of cleaning a room, and at least you are telling them with reasoning etc so they understand why, instead of just telling them one thing (clean your room). In school we are mostly told to clean our rooms (read the text books)…and that’s about it (well this was my experience of waste of time, 40 plus kids to a room schooling system).

    Teaching and telling are much the same thing I feel and you can tell a child how to read and pronounce words etc. All teaches tell.
    1. To give a detailed account of; narrate: tell what happened; told us a story.
    2. To communicate by speech or writing; express with words: tell the truth; tell one’s love.
    3. To make known; reveal: tell a secret; tell fortunes.
    4. To notify; inform.
    5. To inform positively; assure: I tell you, the plan will work.
    6. To give instructions to; direct: told the customers to wait in line.
    7. To discover by observation; discern: could tell that he was upset.
    8. To name or number one by one; count: telling one’s blessings; 16 windows, all told.

    Not sure about tempting your kids with rewards though…its the wrong motivation and you should know better. LOL.

    Rob, no we don’t tell our surgeons what to do because they have already been told what to do, they have spent years being told what to do. The they spend the rest of their life perfecting what they were told, or in some cases going a little further.

    I agree 100% with you…you can’t tell about a subject you don’t know about…This is why I don’t like safety in some mining sectors, because we were required to be trainers and assessors, not safety experts. Since when did the role of a safety person require knowledge in so many other fields…when a company realised it would cost to much to employ many specialised roles!

    I am not a teacher, I ‘was’ a safety and risk advisor (or tried to be anyway). Someone who ensures that tasks are done in a manner that is required legally or as best practice to protect both company and worker. As safety advisor I should ensure that plant and equipment is being maintained and repaired so it is fit for use, pick up on things others may miss. My safety meetings use to be fun and involved all workers, everyone had fun, like the time a packed a latex glove with tomato sauce and tissue paper and got a worker to hold it while I cut the fingers off (was pretty realistic i’ll send the photos to Dave he might post them). I then asked someone to jump in do first aid, it was fun and every learned more than ever before, even guys who were 20 years in the industry. Another time putting a rubber snake under a pallet in what people thought I was doing a manual handling example, all that concentration on lifting with good techniques, yet I wanted to make one simple point. Every week guys were saying what have you got in store today, yeah, I liked being a safety person. I have videos of some of my TBMs, and no one is sleeping that for sure. But anyway I was accused by management for spending 20min a week on safety talks, so I went back to the latest safety alert of some incident that occurred somewhere else and told workers to were PPE and drink water in under 5mins…real safety!!!

    If an incident occurred I would seek every possible reason and causal factor (to many peoples distaste, because truth hurts) I would go way deeper that just human error or other simple reasons. I would ask the engineers why things happened, I would ask the manager why things were allowed to occur, I seeked info from experts at every opportunity. I would have loved to give you a ring and fly up to question the workers as to why they did something wrong (to find out the real cause like poor culture of the workplace, or managers who don’t care etc), but its not that world. Who am I or any other safety person to make judgment about something I have little knowledge about? but we are expected to be experts in so many fields today, and we wonder why incidents keep happening and why we don’t learn…the system is a joke…no one wants to pay for the truth, its just to easy to make it all up, or fit it in how they want it to be, to look good on the graph at the next meeting…

  • Do we tell our surgeons how to operate on us, don’t think so. Do we tell psychiatrists they don’t know what they are doing or engineers how to build and design, don’t think so. Do we seek a lawyer when we go to court, of course we do. Do we seek support from psychologists when relationships and things fall apart? Of course we do. The beginning of learning and knowledge is acknowledging what one doesn’t know. Unless you are well studied in learning and education the same applies. Lots to learn and understand about humans and learning, this is why we develop expertise in the discipline .

  • Mark

    I don’t think you can teach by empathy and practice, and interaction and discussion is both forms of being told in some way. Your partner has to tell students something at some point (that is why they go, to be told how to improve, or be told in a different way), and the reason the kids are learning is because they are getting told the right way (one on one with care), not the wrong way (in a group with little care)… nor are they being left behind because it is one on one (or a small group)…kids don’t know how to learn, there is no class on learning how to learn, were are all told to memorize stuff, copy from the white board, copy from the text book.

    Learning is only as good as your memory; you can only practice what you have been told from the stuff that fills your empty vessels. Schooling is all about memorizing lots of boring stuff, the more you can remember, the better score you will get. How do you teach memory?

    Most kids don’t learn because they are not motivated to do so, most kids have no meaning to the purpose of learning, most kids don’t even know what they want to be in life…how can anyone learn with no purpose or goals. Kids don’t know the importance of education, only from their parents telling them so, how many kids listen to their parents?

    Schooling is set up to teach a particular curriculum and teaches have to meet these goals, meaning there is no time to slow up and deal with every specific child or to work around their specific learning abilities or learning styles, so they end up having to go a tutor for further education. It is not possible to teach all our kids at this perfect level, which is why we have 40 kids to a classroom (pump them through schooling as we know each social level will be filled, just enough for doctors, some for specialized skills and the rest as laborers etc…kind of like a pyramid shape).

    Society cannot produce too many smart children, sadly, there are ones left behind. The reality is, there is not enough educated jobs for all those educated kids with 100% test scores. Work is shared by many levels of education (that’s just the way it is). An educated child is not going to want to be a laborer or a process meat worker. And say we as a society wanted all kids to be well educated, and we know they only way to do this is by lots of specific teaching styles and curriculums to meet every child needs…who is going to pay for all this. If a good size classroom is say five students, that is 6-8 times more teachers and classrooms needed etc. I don’t think I want to be paying 70% in tax. And then can you imagine who would want to be a doctor or a lawyer working 20 hrs shifts and dealing with tragedy when the job is so common (nothing special), that the wage is the same as a laborer.

    I think the tutor proves that telling is the most important thing in learning, because if you don’t tell in a good way, the kids won’t learn, it’s that simple.

    Simply put, if the schools got it right and the teaching methods of the teachers was that of empathy and practice, and interaction and discussion and having no pressures to produce, then your partner would be out of a job.

    Your point proves that telling is more important that listening, because to listen, you have to be connected, motivated and interested…all the ingredients of why your partner has kids that learn something. In this case learning come from good telling.

    • Unfortunately the Tutor also takes on the role of the parent for whatever reason ie assisting with homework, explaining concepts. These parents don’t have time or don’t have the confidence or skills to help their kids learn. Rob is right, this is far to complex for me……..can you just tell a kid how to read or do you teach them how to read?

      I wish I could just tell my kids to clean their rooms but actually getting it done is a very complex combination of teaching them how you want it done, providing the right resources, them understanding why it needs to be done, negotiation, reward/incentive, some punishment and mostly them realizing that it is in their own interests ie if they want to stop losing things or get their cloths washed.

  • Dave, there is so much to understand and learn about learning, like many things it is quite complex. Just to understand and become good at the facilitation of learning and discovery takes extensive learning in itself. The transference of knowledge through experience for example can never come through telling but mostly comes through feeling in intuitive, implicit knowing. Indeed, sometimes the telling process can drive the opposite of what is intended. This is often why safety people, some managers and technical type people in safety miss the point because they somehow think the nature of learning and education is not a specialist discipline. They do however think that the nature of their discipline is specialist so we end up with this weird contradiction where some disciplines are recognised as complex eg. medicine and others assumed to be common and simplistic, this is mostly due to the unknown unknown factor. Rather than exercising doubt in the face of a lack of expertise, many safety people try to take on the task of educator and we end up with rubbish inductions and training programs. Black and white is so attractive and so the idea that ‘telling’ works is maintained despite the fact that all the evidence in the sector demonstrates that people are not learning.

  • An education degree is 4 years full time and includes 2-3 months prac , I wonder what they study in all that time?

  • Mark

    I think there are two arguments here and it depends on two things and what angle you are sitting at…whether you are a teacher (telling is 100% important) or a student (listening is 100% important)…but you still have to be told first in both cases, so you would have to think telling sits above listening. Obviously, there is much complexity about telling (delivery) and learning (cognition).

    I agree that the power in ‘practicing’ knowledge is all about listening (taking it in). But if you don’t get told first by any means, then there is nothing to fill those empty vessels with to learn from, just like a bucket with a hole in it holds no water. Fill the bucket (vessels) up and hope that water does not leak (via de-motivation etc).

    What is more important, the water or the bucket…well, you would not have the bucket if there was no water to carry.

    Deriving knowledge has to come from being told first, this is the only pathway for getting knowledge. Everything we do outside our subconscious thinking (breathing etc) is gained from being told. Music, art, photos, observations, play, writing, hurting yourself, that little subconscious voice etc are all telling us something in a powerful way (a picture says a thousand words), and we need to listen to that something before we can practice it. Therefore being told is the most fundamental and powerful way in ‘gaining such knowledge’, and is the most important factor up to the point of passing that ownership of knowledge via telling to someone else, where it then becomes as equally important to practice that learning (your argument).

    Observation, discovery and play I think are all borne from being told first…and you cannot learn methods without being told.

    • My partner is an English tutor and just from listening to what she tells me, the first thing is to assess a child’s skills and existing knowledge, then to find out what they need to learn or what difficulties they have and then to find out how each individual child learns – they are all different. These are all kids who sit in class all day with 30 others and get told stuff yet for what ever reason they don’t learn it, they seems to have not grasped teh basics then been left behind?. She is surprised how quickly these kids transform, not by her telling but by empathy, interaction, discussion, practice and a bit of fun along the way.

  • Amazing what knowledge and propensity to developing knowledge that is genetic. Methods of observation, discovery and play are much more powerful than telling.

  • Mark

    I don’t know about this argument, and without being fully told, I would have to think that filling the brain with data is the only way we learn, and I feel it is the superior philosophy. How can you possibly learn without being given (told) knowledge? What you do with the knowledge and how one interprets it is where teachers can learn a this makes all the difference in whether some takes it in or not. (I bet most teachers teach there telling text books all differently or adjust to suit the audience…this is the science of teaching).

    In relation to educators studying the fundamentals and science of teaching, they are in fact being ‘told’ themselves about these studies or pedagogies. It’s no use teaching English in French, because even though the data (knowledge) is of the same author, the book the same length, the English student will not learn. The book is telling the same story, yet it cannot be understood. Telling covers so many methods of giving knowledge, which could be as I mentioned previously; talking, expression, art, writing, observations, body language etc. The only way you can extract information is by one of these learning methods, I cannot see how there is another way to learn and would like some direction for further research so I can clear my dissonance.

  • People without much experience or expertise in learning may not know that the theory of ‘tabular rasa’ or ’empty slate’ was proposed by John Locke some time ago and proposes that learning is about filling the heads of empty vessels. The evidence against this theory is overwhelming. Educators study the fundamentals of learning, curriculum and pedagogy as the basis for what they do. The process of learning is much more about fascilitation and extraction rather than telling. In reality, the proportion of us who learn much by telling is minuscule.

  • Mark

    I think being told, being shown, being given are all 99% the start of learning (the first step). You cannot learn from a void. You have to get knowledge somehow.

    Even when you seek answers to questions, your mind ends up being told (reading, watching, listening, observing etc) by some educational means. Telling only browns people off when they are not interested in the learning being provided because they don’t care or assume they already know everything or because its general knowledge and don’t need to be reminded all the time (safety inductions) or if the teacher is so full BS it’s a waste of time listening.

    I like the truth of Robs comment about there is very little listening in industry and this explains why management often don’t lead and don’t connect with the people they are meant to know and influence is the reality of many problems. For some reason, when someone is given a title they assume that they are automatically at a different social level (mostly higher) regardless if they deserve to be or not. A title just means you have a certain role to fulfil, it should not mean that everything you now say is supposed to be followed.

    I don’t think a safety person should tell anyone how to do their job, for its not their job. That is why I like the term safety advisor. Most safety people have little frontline skills (unless they come from that trade) so how can they tell. They might have a opinion, but that’s all it should be, if the worker wants to take on that opinion, then that is their call. The flipside though…If the worker is working on a roof without a harness, then that is a different story. It is then for the safety advisor to advise what the legal requirement is or help out to see if it can be done another way…but again done with respect and consultation. If the worker does not want to listen, it’s up the manager to decide not the safety person, if the manager does not want to listen…then make a note in your diary and shut up or find another job. I think Andrew Carnegies point (even though not about safety) is a good one to add here; if he (your boss) is not, he is not the man for you to remain with–leave him whenever you can, even at a present sacrifice, and find one capable of discerning genius.

    Give people their knowledge via telling, but as we seem to agree on, do it respectfully and in balance.

    Tell a bit, listen a bit, tell a bit, listen a bit, show a bit, be shown a bit, give advice and listen to advice…this is respectful consultation.

    And something else we should respect, is that all people are all wired different, and some are not skilled in the art of telling or listening, some people who are very knowledgeable may come across as not knowledgeable because of their shyness, others, due to lots of passion and frustration because they cannot get what they want to say out they way they want to is the reason they might come across as angry.

    • Yeah good conversation is a skill. I mentioned the concept of asking and listening, as opposed to telling, to a Manager yesterday and he said: “oh so now I should say “what the bloody hell are you doing that for” rather than just tell them not to do it”!!!! We have a long way to go………

  • The process of learning mostly comes from not being told but by reflection and filtering and owning what one observes and interacts with. ‘Telling’ mostly browns people off and is the mode of excess in the safety industry, I think getting the balance right is the sense of your article Gab. One thing for sure, there is very little listening in industry and this explains why management often don’t lead and don’t connect with the people they are meant to know and influence. Those who help facilitate learning are the best teachers and they do this not by controlling or telling others but by creating an environment and context that fosters self learning, and when people do this the power of ownership in learning takes over, they don’t have to be told. The beauty of real learning and ownership is one can adapt and vary actions based on knowledge and get beyond an instructional and indoctrination approach to education.

    • You only have to look at the faces in a typical induction session these days to know that their minds are elsewhere – as for online induction – eeerk

  • Mark

    I like articles that get you thinking.

    I am not sure what all this fuss is about between telling and listening when both are as important as each other. When we are to learn we are to listen by being told. The COPs etc are trying to help us understand how we can manage risk and safety from years of learning and experience (both good and bad) so we all have a sense of similarity and common objectives (as community should). You have to remember that codes of practice (safety training) provide only practical guidance for people who have work health and safety duties, and who need to achieve the standards required under the Act. It’s like a cake, you can learn all the instructions on how to make the cake, but you don’t have to follow them, but if you don’t follow the rules, then the cake may not turn out (unless luck is on your side).

    In the general workplace, people who are not safety professionals (large % of workers and managers) are not fully knowledgeable in regards to safety and the laws that govern our workplaces, so they have to be told about safety boundaries, just as cooks need to be told about theirs (oven at 180 degrees or the cake will burn) and when police tell you that it’s not ok to talk on a phone while driving. The reason we have safety people is to keep safety in check with what the world has collectively learned, and from what laws have been put in place from these learnings.

    Our very existence is based on being told what to do and what rules we must abide by to be safe (we cannot just think everyone knows safety boundaries).

    I would say that the telling is a much higher ratio than listening, that is until we know more than before and start telling ourselves. Rules are everywhere; to roads, financial systems, education, and everything else we are a part of in our society and I am sure your kids have been given rules based on what was told/educated…don’t play with sharp knives, don’t through sticks at hornets nests (as I did when I was a kid and paid the price for not listening). There is though a fine line between too much telling and not enough listening, but in many instances, there is no option but to listen, particularly when you are naive or a task has to be a certain way to achieve a positive outcome.

    “A teacher does not ask their students to talk until they know, for they are still naive”

    I think the reason these papers don’t explain how to communicate, or to socially engage etc is because if you don’t know how to by the time you leave school then you most likely have not gained the secondary socialisation skills required to be a manager, safety person or any other role that requires good communication skills where listening and telling go hand in hand.

    I do agree that the industry needs more focus on how to engage workers, how to build relationships and collaborate more, but like everything in an organization, it has to start from the top. Safety is a role that sites between management and coalface workers. If management are not on board with safety, then the safety person has bucklies chance to make a change.

    Anyway..funny enough after talking about rules I have just been asked to move on by police as they have just ‘told’ me that I cannot sleep here in my car…bloody rules.

  • Good stuff Gabrielle, Schein is just brilliant.

    • A recent comment from LinkedIn:

      I like where Gabrielle is coming from but I think it may not be as simplistic as it sounds.
      There are the following issues to consider:
      1: We live in a democratic country but workplaces are not democratic.
      2: Management’s right to manage – ergo the right of managers to give ‘reasonable and lawful direction’ to employees. This means that, in some cases the ‘relationships’ building approach may be a furphy. A directive given as a request is still a directive.
      3: The WHS laws require consultation – but they don’t give employees the right to decide.
      4: Sometimes higher powers within these non-democratic organisations make ‘telling’ the only option.

      That said, to get a person thinking about the choices they make, and why, I’d rather ask a question than telling them they did it (or are doing it) wrong. There’s no opportunity for learning in the latter approach.

Previous post:

Next post: