‘Do you want to play Questions?’ (your secret weapon)

Have you ever read/saw Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead?  It’s an amazing play turned into a very good movie about two of the throwaway characters in Hamlet whose claim to fame is that they are outwitted by the brooding prince and executed in England.

In one scene, the two play a game called “Questions” – they must, not so surprisingly, only speak in the form of questions. Hesitation, statements, or non sequiturs are not allowed.  If someone goofs, the other person scores a point (or forfeits, or however you want to play it).

In the play, the scene is meant to further illustrate the limits of language and futility in seeking existential knowledge.  But what it also does is remind us of the POWER of asking questions.

As leaders and as employees, we can benefit from playing our own version Questions when holding important conversations or when confronted with a potentially sensitive situation.  These conversations are filled with potential land mines – your innocent statement or observation could set the other person off because you didn’t know where they were coming from.If-you-ask-cp1weq

Forcing yourself to focus on questions rather than statements has a number of benefits.  You signal you’re willing to listen. Good questioning invites the other person in.  Questioning indicates you’re seeking understanding, rather than imposing your interpretation of events. When you ask questions, you actually have to listen to what the other person is saying, so that your next question makes sense in the context of the conversation.  And an added bonus, asking questions increases the chance that the other person might find their own solution.

There is, however, an art to using the questioning technique effectively.  After all, simply asking “How did that make you feel?” or “So you’re saying that customer was rude to you?” can sound condescending if that’s all you say.  Just follow the Questions rules:

  • No statements: Move the conversation forward with a question rather than your own statement. [And yes, I know that you will have to use SOME statements.  Just try to minimize them.]
  • No repetition: Stay engaged, pay attention.  If you find yourself repeating the other person’s words back to them, or ask the same question over and over, RE-ENGAGE.
  • No synonyms: It’s just a fancy way of repeating.  Show off.
  • No rhetoric: The intent of the questions is to seek clarity, not to stump the other person.  Does this mean every question you ask will be answered? No. But you should give them a fair chance.

So the next time you are in a scenario that could get messy, try following Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s example.  Give yourself a deduction every time you break the rules and see how it turns out.  You might be surprised that all it took to defuse the situation was a few good questions.

“Words, words. They’re all we have to go on.”
― Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

Admit I’m right!!! The value of debate in a polarized world

This past week, Bill Nye (self-proclaimed “science guy”) and Ken Ham (head of the Creation Museum) debated the merits of creationism vs. science/evolution.  (If you want to watch it, you can do so here.)  There was a lot of hubbub on both sides of the aisle on this one, with the prevailing opinion being why bother?  Scientists, in particular, were not terribly supportive of Nye’s decision to participate, a fact reflected in their feedback that it wasn’t “a total disaster.”

The crux of the mindset is that since the two sides are SO far apart in interpretation and beliefs, there is no point in having a conversation about it.

Well, I say hogwash.  Or at the very least, I call shenanigans.

Our society is increasingly polarized – we are bombarded by a black or white rhetoric that feels bound and determined to force us to choose a side and do it now.  The internet has a hand in this – those with fringe beliefs can find like-minded individuals more easily than ever before.  And even better, you can filter out all the stuff you don’t believe in, thereby validating only your opinion.

With apologies to Bill Watterson – I love Calvin & Hobbes.

The value of debate depends on what your goal for the conversation is. If you want to instantly change the mind of someone who lives by deeply held beliefs – no, there is no point.  However, if you want to start the dialogue that will allow each side to develop empathy and understanding about the others’ point of view, debate can be incredibly beneficial.

I don’t know what the motivation was for Bill Nye and Ken Ham.  I suspect both sides wanted to try and explain their point of view while winning some folks over to their way of thinking.  (Given that the debate was held at the Creation Museum, I suspect Nye had a harder time of it.)  But I applaud them both for at least starting the dialogue – if not for their own beliefs, then for those who listened.

The mere fact that we as a society are talking about the debate requires us to consider our own beliefs, as well as the beliefs of others.  We are forced to consider the why behind our arguments, and weigh the merits of our whys.  And while we may seldom change our minds, we will sometimes concede that while we don’t agree with the other side, we can at least understand why they think that way.

The debate avoidance phenomenon is alive and well in the business world, too.  Here are some reasons we shy away from the conversation and some things to keep in mind to overcome them:

  • We think we’re Nostradamus: Ever notice how many psychics you work with? –  “Why even ask?  They’ll just say no.” “I’ll just put Ken into that position, no one else would want to try for it anyway.” “Feedback is useless because they just ignore it.”  If you can predict the future, go by a Powerball ticket already.
  • Conflict is icky: The core of every debate is a difference of opinion, and people seem to think that conflict means no one will like them or that the team doesn’t get along.  Remember – conflict is inherent to progress.  You can’t move forward without recognizing that the status quo needs to change.
  • People can be jerks: Not everyone debates professionally.  While most people can have a discussion about a difference of opinions like an adult, there’s always that one person who yells, or cries on command, or is incredibly passive aggressive.  Get over it. Say your piece, remind them about the goal of the conversation, and control what you can control (meaning you).  And remember: most of the time, they resort to these tactics because they want you to drop it – don’t fall for it!
  • What if I’m wrong?: It’s true – you may end up changing your position after the debate.  Oh, the terror!  You mean you were able to consider all sides of an issue and make an unbiased decision?  Yeah, we wouldn’t want that. [sarcasm – sorry!]

There are some concepts that we all just hang on to, regardless of the evidence.  Some call it faith, some call it fallacy, some call it lies, some call it conspiracy.  Whatever you call it, why not talk about it?  The only way we grow is to be exposed to new things…so go find a new thing and talk about it.

The worst that can happen is that you’ve had a conversation and maybe learned something new.  Isn’t that worth it?

Have you had a debate that gave you a new perspective? Share in the comments!


Some cheese with your whine? (dealing with the victim mentality)

As you may have figured out, I have a “thing” about accountability – I happen to believe it’s one of the most important character traits a person can possess.  I even wrote a whole article about it (see?).  So I fully acknowledge that when I address the topic of victim mentality, I have a bit of an agenda.  Okay, disclaimer out of the way.  Let’s do this!

Most of us have been “blessed” with the experience of watching someone play the victim – “It’s not my fault.” “He’s just out to get me.” “That’s not fair.” “I wanted to give you a raise, but they wouldn’t let me.”   The fascinating part about it is that the victim mentality knows no boundaries.  From the fresh-out-of-school entry-level clerk to the tenured CEO, anyone can take refuge in the sanctuary of the victim mentality.  Um…yay?

The tragedy of the victim mentality is that it quickly becomes a way of life for people.  Why?  Because it works.  It allows managers to avoid tough conversations because now it’s someone else’s fault and the employee can’t be mad at them.  It allows employees to avoid taking responsibility because now everything was out of their control and it’s not fair to blame them.   And the rest of us let them get away with it because it’s easier to just say “fine” and secretly resent them than it is to call them on it, all the while moping that you’re the only one who seems to do anything around here…thereby perpetuating the victim mentality.

no_whiningSo in the spirit of personal accountability, here is some guidance on how to overcome victim mentality for the following scenarios in your workplace:

  • If you’re listening to your employee or a peer play the victim: First, try not to roll your eyes.  Were you successful?  Good!  Now you can empathize (but don’t sympathize!).  Acknowledge that from their perspective, you could see it might feel like they were a victim (don’t say it that way – tailor your phrasing to the words they’re using).  Then you might start asking some probing questions, such as, “Did they explain to you why it was important to meet the deadline?” Or perhaps, “So when you read through all the fine print, did it not outline the penalties for early cancellation?”  Basically, you’re helping the other person see that they had some ownership, too.  Don’t be a smartass, though – that doesn’t work out well.
  • If you’re listening to your manager play the victim: Oy…what to do?  This one is tough, no question.  If you have a good relationship with your boss, you might be able to use humor to point out how silly they’re being.  (No, really, this works…as long as you trust each other).  Many times, all you can do is nod politely and say, “wow”.  Once your boss is done complaining, ask an action-oriented question, such as, “So what I can I do to help you move this forward/solve the problem/support you?”  Sometimes that’s enough to snap them out of it and get them in the right mindset attain.  Again – don’t be a smartass.  Just sayin’.
  • If it’s you playing the victim (non-manager role): Stop it.  (Need more?  Sheesh.)  Self-awareness goes a long way towards changing any behavior, so become a little more introspective about your complaining.  What’s your inner monologue say?  Is there a lot of finger-pointing, “they”, or “fairness” creeping in? Ask yourself, “What did I do that contributed to this outcome?” and acknowledge your role in the situation.  If you can’t seem to do that, ask a friend to play devil’s advocate to help you learn from the experience and break your victim habits.  Hopefully, they won’t be a smartass.
  • If you’re playing the victim (manager role): The most common issue I see in this case is from a manager who won’t own the message.  It might be that a policy has rolled out that they don’t entirely agree with, or they didn’t address an employee’s performance until someone else noticed the issue and said to deal with it – whatever it might be, some managers try to soften the blow by siding with the employees against a common enemy (usually “leadership” or the ever-popular “HR”).  Here’s the thing – the moment you use the word “they”, you have completely abdicated your authority and credibility to someone else.  Why should your employees see you as a leader if you let someone else push you around?  My advice is that you learn when to fight (not in front of your employees) and when to support (in front of your employees).  You don’t have to agree with everything you’re asked to roll out; but you need to ensure you are aligned with the company and can send a consistent message.  Learn why a decision was made, and figure out a way to communicate that decision without tipping your hand to either support or discontentment.  Not sure how?  Start listening to upper management roll out new policies.  No, not every policy change is a winner, but your employees are looking to you for cues on how to act.  If you’re a victim, they will be, too.

Will there be times in your life when you actually are a victim?  Yes.  So why not save all that energy for use when the situation calls for it, and not when you forgot to mail in your payment?   The reality is, your inner monologue contributes to your reality – if you think you’re a victim, you ARE a victim.  Wouldn’t you rather be the one running your life?  I know I would.

 If it’s never our fault, we can’t take responsibility for it. If we can’t take responsibility for it, we’ll always be its victim.
– Richard Bach

Got a good technique for overcoming a victim mentality?  Or just have a funny victim story to share?  Post it in the comments!