Thursday, March 3, 2011

To Ask or Not to Ask; That Is the Question

I was in a conversation yesterday where we were talking about the elements of conflict, and the systems that groups create (mostly inadvertently) around how conflict is treated. Even when there's a culture that supports engagement (as opposed to flight), there are still many pitfalls.

For example, let's say a group is solidly in favor of taking a look at what's going on when there's the sense that someone is upset—"Let's get it out in the open." Further, suppose the group agrees that this should be attempted respectfully—that is, avoiding anything known to be embarrassing, shaming, condescending, or overwhelming. While it's not hard to get agreement on those goals, it can be the very devil to put them into practice.

Today I want to examine just one aspect of this: the challenge of asking questions of the perceived upset person in such a way that it builds connection rather than pushes the person away. There are a lot of good questions that might be asked in that dynamic. For example:

o What's going on; you look upset?
o Would you like to talk about it?
o How are you feeling right now?
o Is there a different timing or setting that would work better for you?
o What triggered those feelings?
o Do you feel that I got what you said?
o If there are doubts about whether you were heard, what might help?
o Are you interested in my response?

When you have a sufficiently strong or deep connection with the person in distress, there tends to be a fair amount of grace about how your well-intended offer might land. Even when you miss the mark (by which I mean the recipient isn't interested in your question or your offer), this will tend to land harmlessly. It gets dicier however, when the connection is less substantial, or worse, clouded by past interactions that were awkward and unresolved.

There are, in fact, a wide number of ways in which people can miss each other in such tender moments. Let's assume that Person A (Adrian) is in distress and Person C (Chris) wants to reach out in support. Here are a few ways that things can go off the rails:
—Does Adrian want to be held (or even touched at all)?
—Does Adrian want engagement or space?
—What tone of voice will engage Adrian (Hint: a low, soothing tone may be calming and a salve on a wounded soul; or it may come across as condescending and piss the hell out of Adrian)?
—If Chris also happens to be the trigger for Adrian's upset, then attempts by Chris may be received completely differently than attempts by neutral party Pat—even if Chris says the exact same thing with the exact same tone.

In the absence of familiarity, or guidance from Adrian in the moment, Chris is likely to offer what Chris would want in the same situation. Unfortunately, that may have no relationship at all to what Adrian wants. Now we have a double ouch. Not only is Adrian in distress and Chris hasn't helped, but Chris' feelings are likely tweaked as well. Good intentions, it turns out, are not sufficient to guarantee good results.

In the most delicate moments, even a question as baseline as asking what Adrian wants may land poorly. ("If you really cared about me it would be obvious what I need and you shouldn't need to ask.' Or, "Why are you so tentative? Don't be such a wimp." Some days it doesn't pay to get out of bed.) Keep in mind that Adrian is in distress, and is therefore likely to not be hitting on all cylinders. It is relatively common for people in distress to feel isolated and misunderstood. This can easily translate into irrational suspicions about Chris' motivations.

Now that I've given you an overview of a number of ways that the wheels can fall off your welcome wagon, I want to conclude by advising that whenever you're Chris that you nonetheless try to find the courage to ask what
Adrian wants. Even if Adrian is not so appreciative in the moment, it's highly probable that that feeling will turn around after the lightning passes and there's been a chance to reflect.

At the end of the day, I figure it's better to be accused of being courageous and clumsy than timid and paralyzed.

No comments: