How to ask the hard questions

Let me introduce myself. I am that person behind you in line at Target who asks your opinion of the shampoo you’re buying (apologies, but I am interested). And the gal shifting a bit closer to your private museum group to ask your guide a question or two (c’mon, doesn’t it deepen your experience?). And the shopper grilling sales associates about business models and the seamlessness of offline and online business (cue nervous smiles, shifty eyes). I am, and have always been, naturally nosy.

Yet despite this healthy dose of chutzpah, early in my career as a group facilitator, a client took me aside, mid-focus group, and told me that I seemed, “afraid to ask the hard questions.” Yikes. Absolutely not. I denied the charge and proceeded to run the rest of the group like a matador in the bullfight of her life. But, later, mulling over his words, I admitted to myself that I was afraid – to probe deeper, to hurt feelings, to disturb comfort zones, to offend.

After many, varied, interview experiences over the years – during which I’ve spoken to people about issues that range from the happily benign (skincare and beverage choice) to the hyper-intimate (vulnerability at work and mortality) – I’ve honed some technique and working principles to help me dive headfirst into prickly situations. Now, we don’t all interview people for a living, but most of us must ask questions, sometimes awkward ones, to improve our proposal, our project, our position. The better we are at asking the hard questions, the more nuanced the answers. So….

Get comfortable with the uncomfortable. Both you and your interviewee might be incredibly open in connecting, and sharing.  You may be thoroughly prepared with your discussion outline and objectives and contingency plans. But, for you to do this right, you will need to tread in awkward territory. To go in with the mindset that you can control discomfort only sets the stage to curb the unpredictable, and thus any serendipity that might ensue. Not worth it.  Don’t spend your time trying to make the conversation feel normal, or right. Rather, spend that energy making it feel real. Way better ROI. A good interview can chisel away at your biases – but you must be ready to be cracked open.

 Show your feelings. Yes, this flies in the face of the social science rule book. But listen, if you are a sentient being, it is a fact that talking about illness, or a patient dying, or someone feeling vulnerable at work, will make you feel. This only reveals that you are human, not a bad interviewer. How you express your feelings while staying on track reveals your skill. I have cried with interviewees, and then apologized afterwards. I have shared their awe at tales of dismissive doctors, and then asked how they would have done it differently. Sure, I have exposed some of my self here, but in these cases, I feel it’s important to reveal my humanity. I feel confident enough in my capabilities that I can maneuver around any of my over-sharing.

Know when to shut up. In my many years of interviewing – across subjects, cultures, and countries – it’s clear that people want to share.  A dynamic conversation doesn’t mean that you, the interviewer, should do the talking. You should listen, and probe at the right moment. And you need to let those moments appear, in their own time. Use silence the way you work a muscle – sometimes you flex, sometimes you let it go. In moments of silence, take a breath and let your interviewee fill it with their stories. A good ramble is a tapestry of thoughts, ruminations, and unvarnished truths. This is what you want.

Then again, don’t be afraid to put words in their mouths. Beware. I am now going to trot out a concept that has been somewhat worn thin: employ empathy. But stay with me, because there is a there there. Don’t just attune to what that person is going through (which is somewhat transporting). I’m asking you to go method with your empathy. Imagine when you have been in a situation like theirs, and sit there for a while, in it, feeling it. Perhaps we’ve not been cancer patients, or hemophiliacs, but we’ve all had moments of joy, vulnerability, despair, and delight. So when you ask how they felt in a particular moment, let them talk first, then suggest another emotional option (e.g., did it feel like XXX, or maybe more like YYY?) Emotions are complicated and fast-moving. People can’t always locate, articulate, or deconstruct them. Many need a verbal springboard against which to react. I know I’ve done my job well when someone I’m talking to says, “no, actually, it’s not like any of your options, it’s more like ZZZ.” Ahh, yes, of course it is.

And when words fail, use imagery. Again, people don’t always know how to shape what they feel. For those times, share a collection of evocative imagery (I use images pulled from magazines) and ask them to choose a picture(s) that represents the experience. Inevitably, a visual will spark a thought out of which you and your respondent can make meaning.

On a micro level, an interview creates an opportunity to understand one’s category or business challenge. On a macro level, an interview opens opportunity to stretch the confines of yourself – your perspectives, comfort zones, and biases. In our increasingly atomized and echo-chambered lives – this is a rare gift. Make the most out of it. 

 

 

 

How I learned to love my bathing cap & other symbols of conformity that set me free

Earlier this year, I left my corporate job to consult. I have a fair amount of rebel in me and hankered to be free but perhaps, most importantly, I left to find time. Each year, I felt increasingly that I was running behind …clients, details, tasks, my kids’ lives, my own life. Constant running to catch up left me with little space to wonder, muse, and think deeply -  all vital to what I do, and frankly, to who I am. 

So, I left and all of a sudden, I had time. At first, I reveled in it. Seconds and minutes felt weightier. Then, I FACED it. Lots of it. And, I had to figure out how to best manage it. In a large organization, the org dictates the rhythm and you either rise (or not) to the occasion: 10 people want meetings on Tuesday - stagger them; you’re involved in 5 projects with impending deadlines, stack them; re-scheduled meeting cluster - lunch at your desk, etc. In an organization, demands wallpapered my Outlook. On my own, the empty rows loom large. As a consultant, there are so many to-do’s, it’s hard to identify the priorities. 

In another part of my life, I pledged to go back to some exercise roots and swim moreregularly. I anticipated stronger arms, drier skin, and straw-like hair; what I didn’t expect was how committing to a weekly swim regime would help me organize my time, and get my head straight for my consulting work. 

What I learned, and keep working on:

Embrace structure. At my pool, bathing caps are the rule. They pinch your head, leave weird marks and are just plain ugly. But damn - they work: They keep hair out of eyes, and make for a more streamlined swim. When working corporate, I dreamed about infinite freedom because I wanted to make room for inspiration to hit. But inspiration only comes when there is time. Now, I designate certain days and times of day for particular tasks. I know when I am most alert, and do my deep thinking/creation work then. I know when my energy dissipates, and use social energy/meetings to compensate. Without trusting structure, I can’t function to the best of my abilities.

Dive in. The water is cold. There is no avoiding it. You can wait on the side lines and sprinkle your arms gently with water, but the only way to achieve warmth is by jumping in and moving. Consulting also requires moving through many moments of discomfort. To be successful, you must build a network and do the work. Some of us are better at one than the other. Nevertheless, we have to do both. Swimming taught me to jump in immediately - coaching myself through the discomfort - and hustle to gain warmth. Make those calls, pitch your value. Don’t take it personally. Find the pleasure in it.  And when you’ve logged your laps (or your phone calls), be proud of what you’ve accomplished, and recall it the next time you have to face the cold. Because you will. 

Keep your whole self in order. If I don’t sleep well, eat well, live well, I don’t swim well. Some nights, I want to binge watch Transparent (right?), but I tear myself away because I know waking up in the morning will be arduous, and my next day’s swim will be lumbering and unsatisfying. For me, the fun of my work is in the big ticket items - writing reports, running creative workshops, thinking about what drives people, how culture impacts action. I don’t love book-keeping or filing, but these are the other parts of my work self - the support systems - and they enable the fun stuff. I will admit, it’s deeply boring, but I’ve used downtime to establish some systems that have proven their value time and again.

Share your lane. As a swimmer, I admit to suffering from delusions: I think I’m the fastest and therefore, deserve my own lane. In reality, I’m just OK, and there is room for others. It’s amazing how it’s possible to share, without it impeding my progress. When you’re on your own, as a consultant, there’s pressure to do it all because it’s all revenue. But think about the greater benefit you might get from sharing, delegating, and partnering. Give something away. It’s better for the universe and ultimately, that’s better for you. This summer, I was able to employ a new graduate for a project: I gave him a bit of money, but also insight into what I do and a bit more direction for him as he moves towards his first professional experiences. For me, the rewards of teaching and helping were way bigger than the project’s results. 

Don’t compare yourself to others - unless you’re looking for inspiration. At my pool, there are some people who can freestyle for 45 minute straight. Wha?! I’m at my worst when I wonder why they can do it, and I can’t. But, I am at my best when I wonder how they do it, and what I can learn from. So many factors make them (bionic freestylers) who they are and so many factors make the other consultants in my real and virtual midst who they are. Comparison is a futile act. Instead, concentrate on your skills, your uniqueness, your goals. The wins can be small (yes, I am up to 6 consecutive freestyle laps without collapsing), but the achievement is huge.

I am a work-in-progress and some weeks, I regress, and don’t follow my principles but I own them, and have them to refer back to. Next week - what I learned from doing water aerobics with women aged 68 years+ …it’s not for the weak of heart.

 

Signs of intelligent, communal life

This world is complex: We are so hyper connected, yet many of us don't know how to talk to each other; we are empowered to speak, but our lone voice drowns in the din of louder (and not often smarter) voices; we are seen in some of our angles, but we still feel - and are, often, - ignored.  It's hard to understand life's purpose - truly what we are doing here - when so much bile and hatred - once latent - is exploding through the surface.

The last two weeks in this country have been confounding. Have we moved forwards? Does moving forwards require moving backwards? Does it have to be so painful and ugly? Maybe it does. Across my various social networks, I've noticed so many people talking about 'finding their voices'. They want to share their outrage and confusion, shame and empathy. We live in such a peculiar time where we can all publicize our opinions, but it leaves us open to such vile, ignorant, hateful criticism. They're scared. They want to show humanity and vulnerability, but they're afraid of repercussions beyond their control. Missiles of hatred leveled at them. They're reaching for the courage to speak their truth. 

When I was 28 and got cancer, it threw me for a loop. It was very much NOT the plan. But I just pushed through - I did chemo, radiation, all of it, because I wanted to live. It was as simple as that. I didn't want to start again, and be better. Live life differently. Make it great. I just wanted to live. To breathe and grow. The way I was during my treatment garnered a lot of admiration - 'oh, you are so courageous', 'you're so brave'. Was I? I didn't feel especially brave. I felt stuck in a corner, actually. I was in a deeply uncomfortable situation with options of yuk or yuckier. And so I chose yuk (surprisingly, the better option), and dug into myself - to find my strength and weaknesses, and trust in my doctor and family and things that felt informed and right and good. Courage didn't fuel me; it came after the fact. Discomfort fueled me. Being on the ledge fueled me. I had to do something to resolve my situation. This is what I think: For the most part, one doesn't feel comfortable when one is doing something brave. One feels wobbly. So, if you feel compelled to say something, but you're feeling vulnerable and exposed and open to judgment, then you've found the seeds of your voice and you. should. speak. Only then, will you feel steadier.  

Someone (or someone's) leave magazines around this public bench where I walk in the morning. It is such a beautiful, innocent, small gesture of community that - for me - resonates loudly. I think that in this big, loud, chaotic, dysfunctional global world of a lot of bad and a lot of good, change comes from the ground up, and manifests as a multitude of small acts/behaviors/messages that build to something bigger and, hopefully, better. 

Gordon Parks + Ralph Ellison = Harlem excellence

The Harlem Renaissance has always captured my imagination. The appeal is manifold - part lies in the deep belief people had for the way that art and culture could be grounds for a social and spiritual revolution; Part lies in witnessing people struggling to define themselves, move themselves out and away from societal labels and expectations; part lies in the celebration of language, and the commitment to articulating the complexity of outer and inner life. And, frankly, I love the hifalutin, intellectual reach of it all. So much of our popular media right now is so epically dumb. It takes a nanosecond to digest, doesn't challenge us, and is really not worth sharing (Yes, I am talking about you, Kardashians.) Behold, a new photojournalism book with photos by Parks and previously unseen words by Ralph Ellison. Enough of a reco for me. Summer reading - elevated. 

Invisible Man: Gordon Parks and Ralph Ellison in Harlem,” published by Steidl, the Gordon Parks Foundation, and the Art Institute of Chicago, is out this month.

Vinson Cunningham, New Yorker review here. http://www.newyorker.com/culture/photo-booth/ralph-ellison-and-gordon-parkss-joint-harlem-vision