Friday, February 3, 2017

If My Question Offends You – A Remix

An offended heart is the breeding ground of deception. - John Bevere

Being offended is part of being in the real world. - Courtney Love

When you are offended at any man's fault, turn to yourself and study your own failings. Then you will forget your anger. – Epictetus

Yesterday, I observed a long time colleague terminate a 25+ year friendship with me because I dared to ask why he focuses on spreading doom and gloom, often referencing fanatical, fear-laden rhetoric written by people who are pushing their fear and paranoia onto other people.

Merely asking the question of why he does it caused him to terminate the relationship and as I reflected upon this with another long-time colleague this morning, A. made an interesting observation.

A. said, “Well, you know that you are very intimidating when you ask questions and these questions can be easily misinterpreted”.  He meant well by the observation and stressed that he wasn’t trying to insult me (and I wasn’t insulted by the observation – his heart and mind are always solution-oriented and I have deep respect for him for that).

I found the observation fascinating because the question that I asked that launched the relationship termination was “Why?”.  I didn’t even get a chance to follow-up with the often misunderstood, more detail-specific “How do you know?”.

When we are immediately offended by someone asking “Why?”, we forget that we are being invited to explain something, to strengthen support for an idea, to more fully flesh the idea out or perhaps to win a “convert” over to a new cause (or perhaps correct an incorrect behavior that is adversely impacting ourselves or others).

Conversely, when we get our backs up over someone asking “Why?”, we assume that our answer (or ourselves personally) will automatically be judged (or have been judged already).  It’s as silly as assuming that because someone asked you for the time of day that they are accusing you of being late for something.

So the same question of “Why?” is both a blessing and a curse, depending on how our ego chooses to respond to it.

Examples from the “how dare you?” camp …

A short while ago, colleagues of mine had an opportunity to invest millions in a small company that had run out of cash and the company chose to give priority to a $25,000 sale in lieu of accepting the investment.  When I asked “why?” they had made that choice, what was sent back was a barrage of “You don’t understand” excuses and insults.  They took burning bridges to a new level.

Last week, an investment opportunity for colleagues of mine that had been a year in the making went off the rails when the person, after taking more than a year to get to a decision on investment, went off the deep end when merely asked why it was taking so long for him to make any decision.  The investment decision had already been approved but the person in question went about convincing myself and others that the investment should not happen.

Examples from the “thank you” camp ….

Colleagues of mine in the middle of creating a game-changer in the area of predicting human behavior listened to my questions of “Why?” and “How do you know?” in November and the light came on.  They knew exactly why I was asking and enthusiastically set about answering the question, knowing that their offering would become stronger as a result (Well done, Greg and gang – you are changing the world).

A new colleague of mine, in exploring approaches to strategy, told me last night that answering these questions will make his organization stronger and will enable he and his team to serve others better. (Well done, Don – your work will impact generations).

The difference between the two camps is self-confidence in themselves and what they are building, the belief that what they are building will serve themselves and others well, the knowledge that anything that strengthens their offerings creates a win for everyone and the belief that what they are doing is so important that it is worth defending and strengthening.  These men, in their brilliance, know that ego is important for self confidence but can be a destroyer of worlds if not managed well.

The others are either not confident in what they are building, not confident in themselves, are unwilling to fight for what they believe in, know they have made an error, surround themselves with naysayers, compensate for insecurity with a projected overconfidence or have become so accustomed to being judged that they believe every question that is sent their way is in fact a judgement.

Such a heightened level of hypersensitivity robs people of the opportunity to learn, to strengthen their offerings, to improve their results and to connect with other people who want and need to collaborate in creating a better world.

And with that, and for those who don’t understand the importance of answering questions that are asked with an intent to understand and strengthen, I offer a remix of a post I originally shared in April of 2011.

If My Question Offends You

As a long-time strategy and global technology adoption architect, my opinion is often solicited, whether it be by a start-up, a not-for-profit, a Fortune 25 company or anything in-between.

Fortunately (or unfortunately) for the people who solicit my help, I am known as the “asker of audacious questions” (thanks to Barry G. for the title which I wear proudly).

People come to me expecting to ask a lot of questions of me, get a lot of answers from me and move on.

However, many are surprised that I may have more questions for them than they have for me and if they are unprepared or have weak egos, they will be offended by those questions.

Most often, I have two key questions but those questions are often more complex to answer than the questions others have for me.

The questions are “Why?” and “How do you know?”.

There is a little secret about why I ask these questions.

It’s not an attempt to assert one person’s intelligence over another.  We are all gifted in intelligence in different forms.

It’s not an attempt to embarrass them, create a contest of wills or play ego-Olympics.  What a waste of time and energy that is.

I ask the questions so that I can understand what is being presented to me.

The truth is that I find everyone’s ideas and potential to be fascinating.  I am curious to know if people find their own story as compelling and based on reality as they would like me to believe it is.

However, the most important reason I ask so many questions is because I believe, as I learned from Gerald Weinberg’s writings many years ago, that when people come seeking advice or a solution to a problem, they as the subject matter expert often have within their mind the very solution they hope to obtain from someone else’s mind.

Mr. Weinberg posited that if one listens carefully, the owner of a problem will actually state the solution in the first five minutes of dialog.  Mr. Weinberg named this rule …. gasp … wait for it … The 5 Minute Rule.  It is brilliant in its simplicity.

Many times, the owner of a problem or position is so buried with mental baggage that they don’t know the answer or their ego warns them that any answer has already been judged before it was even expressed.  They become so focused on proving that they are the “right person for the job” that their hypersensitive ego steps in and their effort to demonstrate intelligence, qualifications, rationalization or justification drowns out the person trying to help them.

However, if the right questions are asked, probing the mind of the person with the problem, if the problem holder listens carefully, if the problem holder respectfully / factually offers an answer and if the querent listens carefully to the answers, then answers / solutions often present themselves.

There’s a lot of listening there, isn’t there?

People like me don’t just help others find a solution or discover their strengths.  Oftentimes they have it within themselves – they just needed a little help finding it, bringing it out and expressing it.

Asking appropriate questions provide an opportunity to explore within another, the strength of an idea, the thoroughness of the foundation that converts the idea into a result, the willingness of an individual to collaborate in making the idea into a reality and in some cases, offers the opportunity to correct a behavior before someone gets hurt.

It is also an opportunity to assess how strongly someone feels about their willingness to do whatever it takes to make their dream come true (or to correct information on which execution is based).

If someone is offended by a question, there is a good chance that they prefer not to deal with realities, that their ego doesn’t want to acknowledge that they may need some help or in fact, they may have discovered a foundational error that can’t be corrected or is not based on reality, ethics, morals, etc (but their ego doesn’t want to admit this).

For those people, being offended by simple questions should sound an alert that they are either not prepared for success or are not hungry enough for it.

And so if my question offends you, forgive me if I tell you that I won’t apologize to you. 

If you are offended,  you, me or both of us may have been saved from a disaster.

Maybe ……. unless you choose to go somewhere else where you hear what you want to hear and not what you need to hear.  After all, there is comfort in hearing what you want to hear from a bunch of yes-people who have their own agendas or biases in play, often to your detriment.

Unfortunately in those situations, reality is a persistent beast.  It tells us what we need to hear repeatedly until we get it.

Or … if we ignore it too long … it gets us.

But then, you already knew that … didn’t you? :-)

In service and servanthood,


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PS: I am reminded of a similar phenomenon, being offended by what is not said. For example, if I make an anti-Clinton comment, people should not infer I am pro-Trump (or vice versa).  Too many people intentionally make this error in an attempt to be deliberately offended, thus rationalizing and justifying a feeling of anger or hatred.  Such actions are equally damaging if embraced.