Pure Inquiry


When working at the interpersonal level, we step outside our own internal dialogue to engage with others in mindful ways. One highly useful way of mindfully engaging others is through what expert in organizational culture Dr. Edgar H. Schein calls “pure inquiry” in his book Helping. Pure inquiry is a potent technique for mindful engagement, because it encourages psychological safety. Pure inquiry is a form of asking questions and eliciting responses without judgmental or loaded feedback. Pure inquiry requires that the person asking the questions keep his or her attention on the answers being provided, without getting caught up in how he or she wants to respond. Keeping this sort of attention can be difficult at first. However, by being mindful of your thoughts, you can gently and nonjudgmentally draw your attention back to the other person. 

Pure inquiry results in pure information being generated that is not polluted by the questioner’s interjections, suggestions, verbal and nonverbal judgments, etc. That type of feedback has a place, but not in pure inquiry. In pure inquiry, questions should not be loaded with judgments, but should be invitations to share information. An example of pure inquiry might be, “Tell me what’s on your mind after that meeting.” A loaded form of this request might sound like, “I see that you are upset after that meeting. What is wrong?” In the second question, the observation that someone is “upset” is a judgment that is going to have an influence on the type of response you get. Another example of pure inquiry is the question, “Can you say more more about what it is you want from me on this project?” A loaded version of this question might be, “It seems like you really want a lot from me on this project. Why is that?” Again, there is a judgment superimposed in the second question.

While pure inquiry makes up some (perhaps a very small part) of the interactions we have with our colleagues, it is a type of engagement that is absent from the workplace at an epidemic level. So much of our communication is loaded down with judgments, with attempts to predict what someone else is going to say, to outwit others, to manipulate, to talk over someone, or to simply be letting our own thoughts wander while someone is talking to us. Pure inquiry is a way of creating a space of psychological safety for others through mindful engagement that is a manifestation of the axiom “seek first to understand."

When people are mindfully engaged in pure inquiry, they will share their authrntic selves, learn about themselves and others through expression, develop bonds of trust, and reduce their stress by lessening their negative emotional load that builds up without the chance to engage in the companion to pure inquiry—pure expression. The compassion, empathy, sympathy, and understanding that comes from pure inquiry and pure expression will reduce barriers among people in the workplace and create the atmosphere for collaboration that is a precursor to innovation, high morale, and a sense of collective purpose.