In the final class of my MBA program, we had to do a presentation. I can’t remember exactly what my partner and I did, but it was some sort of business case analysis. We worked long and hard on our presentation.
We presented to the rest of the class – who were in competition with us. The goal of the class was to make the presenters look as bad and incompetent as possible. Not the best organizational behavior set up to foster goodwill.
There was one other woman in the class besides me. She was outspoken. When our presentation was over, she started asking questions that felt a lot like bait. She was subtly trying to get our goat. My young partner rose to the challenge almost immediately. I remember putting a hand on his shoulder as he began a heated retort. I said, “Wait, let’s be clear about what she is asking before we answer.”
I can’t remember her initial question exactly, but it was something like, “You honestly believe it’s a good idea to have people blah, blah, blah?” What she finished with isn’t important. Then, I turned to her and asked her to clarify.
I asked something like, “What exactly do you think is a problem about having people blah, blah, blah?” She huffed and said it was obvious. I told her that it wasn’t obvious to me and that in order to properly answer her objections, I needed to know exactly what she was objecting to. I asked, “Which part of our analysis do you believe to be faulty and why?”
She sputtered and backed down. She didn’t have anything specific. She was just trying to get us to lose our tempers. It was in that moment that I realized the power of questions. It was well before I started coach training that confirmed that belief. Questions are almost always the answer when facing difficult times and decisions. They also work pretty well on bullies.
The most important thing to remember when using questions is that you must sound sincere in the asking. Any hint of sarcasm and you are done for. Tone of voice is the difference between successfully asking “Please tell me specifically what your objections are to that plan” to create a dialogue and creating ill will and resentment. As leaders, it’s important to maintain an authentic curiosity about what the other person is thinking and feeling.
Coaching is all about helping people figure out their best path forward. Coaches do that by first raising a client’s awareness around a topic and then creating accountability for action. The action part is not usually the problem, it’s deciding what to do that can be a challenge when facing complex issues.
We can coach ourselves a bit during these challenging times by asking ourselves some questions. Here are some of my favorites:
- Which one of your values is the most important to uphold in this situation?
- Which one of your values feels challenged in this situation?
- What is the single most important consideration?
- How do you want to be remembered when this situation is over?
- If you could wave a magic wand and create the perfect outcome, what would it look like? What is the most powerful action that you could take to help achieve that outcome?
- What would make this decision easier?
- What are the unknowns right now?
- Who else will be affected by your decision?
- How can you help others?
- Who can help you?
- What would you regret doing? Not doing?
We can use these questions for something as easy as whether or not to wear a mask in public. I do wear a mask because I feel that the most important thing for me to do is to protect others. I could be pre-symptomatic and not know it at any time. I would wholly regret giving COVID-19 to someone else – even unknowingly. To me, it’s a simple action that I can take to care for others. Caring and helping others is one of my core values.
People who don’t wear masks make their decisions based on different values and considerations. I don’t know what they are for sure, but I would guess from what I’ve heard and read that freedom is an important consideration for them, or perhaps not showing fear or weakness. I am not criticizing their decision. We all must do things in alignment with our values that are based on the information that we have.
I recently visited several gun shops. I was the only person in every store who was wearing a mask. Well, one guy walked in wearing a mask, looked around, then took it off. Blending in, or what other people thought of him, seemed to be his guiding principle.
I did not take my mask off in any of the gun shops because I am very clear about why I am wearing it. I give myself some modicum of protection, hence I am protecting the people that are in my inner circle. I am also protecting everyone in the gun shop by keeping my respiratory spray to myself. It doesn’t matter to me what everyone else is doing. What matters to me is following my own values and doing what feels right to me. No regrets.
There are a million different ways to assess a decision and decide how to act because each of us has our own unique Frame of Reference. The key is to clearly understand our own Frame of Reference and act in ways that will make us look back on our actions proudly. As great leaders, we also want to feel confident that we are helping more than hurting.
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