Asking the right questions

ask blackboard chalk board chalkboard

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Powerful questions can yield powerful insights. However, the nature of those questions will vary significantly based on the environment where they are asked, and the ultimate goal that the individual hopes to achieve by asking them.

I grew up around the media because my father is a photojournalist. If you watch a news conference, you may notice that journalists ask almost entirely yes-or-no questions. For example, this was one of the questions President Trump answered at a press conference just yesterday, “Thanks, Mr. President. I wanted to follow up on two things that you had said earlier in the cabinet room. The first was on TikTok, and the second was on coronavirus. On TikTok, you said that you wanted money for the US Treasury from the sale. Does that mean you expect the Chinese company to pay the US Treasury directly?

Most lawyers are taught the same technique. On a cross-examination, lawyers are taught to ask yes-or-no questions to help them build their case or challenge a witness’ account of an event. An example of Hollywood’s take on a cross-examination can be seen below from the classic movie My Cousin Vinny:

However, when leading teams or in coaching an individual, which is an essential requirement of leadership, powerful questions are rarely “yes-or-no.” In fact, powerful questions are just the opposite, open ended, allowing the team or individual to work through and explore the answers.

This concept has been on my mind a lot lately. While we have no clear signposts in the middle of this pandemic, we know that it is far from over. And while the hope of returning to normal activities soon still remains high, there are many steps that need to take place before we will reach the finish line of this pandemic. So how do we process what is going on? How to we stay focused on both the present and the future? How do we connect with optimism and hope during a time such as this?

As you consider those questions, imagine how essential workers in our communities are answering these same questions. I think about my colleagues and friends who deliver care every day to patients during the pandemic. Have they had time to take a deep breath and process the loneliness, pain, and suffering? How can they connect to an optimistic mindset?

Over the course of the last month, our patient experience team has tried to give our clinical caregivers the space to do just that. We came up with prompts and suggested that our caregivers write down how they were feeling. Our caregivers appreciated this newfound space to think about what they have been experiencing over the past 5 months.

Again, powerful questions can yield powerful insights. One of the keys to asking questions that can be transformational is to ask them in a way that encourages reflection, exploration, and depth. So when working with your teams, don’t be a journalist at a news conference or a lawyer in a courtroom—be a leader.

KEY TAKEAWAY: Powerful questions usually start with the words, “What” or “How”. They are open-ended and encourage reflection, exploration, and depth.

Journaling

notebook with blank pages

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By my count, today is day 138 of the COVID-19 pandemic, or a little over four and a half months of social distancing. While my wife and I feel blessed to have a roof over our heads, jobs, our health, and a healthy new baby boy, that doesn’t mean the last 138 days have been easy. We miss our family, our friends, seeing people in our community regularly and, boy, what I would do for a night out at our favorite restaurant or to go to a ballgame.

With all of that said, there is one practice that I hope to keep when all of this is over and that’s journaling. Pretty much every evening, I have sat down and kept a journal and I have found that, despite the lack of normal activity, I have had a lot to say! I have already filled up 2 journals that I have previously started and stopped over the last decade and am on my third.

I find it therapeutic to get my thoughts down on paper, even if they are disorganized and incomplete. I do not put pressure on myself for it to be elegant prose or the next great novel, it just reflects what comes off the top of my mind and out of my pen. Journaling helps me reflect on and explore conversations I’ve had, think through problems, process things I am learning, and put events that are bothering me into a larger context.

Journaling also gives me a reference point for certain events. For example, without the journal, I doubt that I would have any memory of my son’s first 4 weeks of life. As those of you who are parents know, that time is a sleep-deprived blur. Not to mention that, because of the pandemic, it was just the three of us for that entire time.

Most of all, I have found that journaling gives me context. It is hard not to feel like every notable moment or decision is significant. However, I look back later and realize that I may have blown whatever was going on way out of proportion. Reading through it in a journal allows me to understand my thoughts and emotions so that when I am feeling those same thoughts or emotions in a similar context, I can put them into perspective, reminding myself how it turned out. I had this exact situation happen to me just this week, and by making the comparison, I was able to make myself feel better and better manage my emotions.

Seeing progress over time has been one of the best discoveries in keeping a journaling practice. I highly recommend it, especially if you are leading teams or you desire to engage in self-discovery. Happy journaling!

Journal of choice: Moleskine large soft cover lined notebook

Writing instrument of choice: Montblanc Meisterstück Platinum-Coated Classique Rollerball or my gift shop pen from the President Gerald Ford Museum

KEY TAKEAWAY: Journaling is a great way to collect your thoughts, especially during times of growth, change, or uncertainty.

Am I serving the group?

At work, I have been sharing with many teams lately about the concept of reflection as a reflex. The concept is about using what Viktor Frankl described in his book Man’s Search for Meaning as the space between stimulus and response. Stephen Covey also included this concept in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

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At times in my career, I have found myself hesitating in meetings. Reflecting on it, I think I hesitate because of things like Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTS), fear that what I say will sound obvious to the rest of the group, or that others in the room are smarter or more experienced than I am and I probably do not have anything of value to contribute. Is this something you struggle with too?

Over time, I have learned a quick “test” that has helped me and I hope will help you too.

Any time I hesitate to speak, I ask myself, “Will what I am about to say serve the group?”

This yes or no question gives me enough time to reflect without missing the germane part of the conversation and to make a decision on whether my comment will add value to the discussion. This question is also consistent with my personal definition of leadership and my desire to practice servant leadership. It gives me the confidence that even if my comment is controversial, it will be received in the right way because my motivation is service to the group.

I use this test in almost every meeting that I attend. It helps me to reflect in the moment and make sure that I am contributing at a high level. The test also keeps me centered. For example, the “test” prevents me from being too quiet or too dominant because my comments are always in pursuit of service to the group.

I hope you find value in this test as well and it helps you create better and more productive meetings.

KEY TAKEAWAY: Leaders can practice reflexion in most contexts, including meetings. Before you speak, simply asking yourself, “Will what I am about to say serve the group?” will give you the confidence to speak up and reflect the authenticity of your point of view.

 

Why I play golf

When I was 4 years old, my mother bought me a 7 iron. She used to take me for lessons at this beat up old driving range off of route 29 near Columbia, MD. I don’t remember much about the experience other than the rusted out old red jalopy car used for target practice at about 150 yards out. I couldn’t hit the ball that far, but remember aspiring one day to hit it.

I went to golf camps for a week at a time here and there growing up as well. I was never all that good but I enjoyed doing it. It’s where I learned to grip a club, the basics of putting, and to keep my head down to make contact.

But, when I was in college something clicked and I have Jeff Maynor to thank for it. Jeff is the golf pro at the University of Maryland. I got to know him when I served as Student Government President at Maryland. He was also my professor in a course I was fortunate to take called, “Golf for Business Majors.” During the course we spent time on the driving range, playing the course at UMD, and in the classroom learning the rules of golf and hearing from guest speakers.

Other than the extremely generous A- I got in the course, thanks to Jeff, there were also several things I learned from the class that have been some of the most practical advice I have ever gotten and use frequently in my career. I learned how to be a conscientious golfer, how to pick up pace of play when you’re not very good, and how to hit my driver. I also learned what to look for in other players and how to read certain behaviors on the golf course that could also translate to the boardroom.

Jonathan Golf

Me teeing off on the 10th hole at Norbeck Country Club. Playing in a charity tournament to benefit Miracle for Melanie in May of 2017

But the most powerful thing Jeff said to us was, “Golf is a metaphor for life.” As a 21 year old, I absolutely did not get it. In fact, I had no idea what he was talking about. Every year after though I never forgot that and I appreciated it more and more.

Golf is one of the only things I enjoy doing even though I know I am not very good at it. When I practice a lot, I shoot in the 90s (good golfers shoot 10 strokes better, in the 80s and really good in the low 70s). Usually though, I’m lucky to break 100. Golf is a very humbling game.

What keeps me coming back time and time again is that one good shot, the people I play with, and the humbling nature of a simple game.

One good shot

Every time I golf, no matter how badly I play, I always have a takeaway or experience that helps me in the next round. It may not even be a shot but more like something I notice, how I take care of my body, or something I learn. The odds are that in all that time on a golf course and from the sheer number of shots, something is going to go right, even randomly. That part, where things start to come together, is what makes golf so addictive. “If I could just do that every time,” is both the golfers blessing and delusion.

Similarly in life, I find that no matter how something went, I always try to be in a learning mode. I try to notice something new, implement something I read about, or learn more to try to mitigate something that did not go according to plan. I also find that there is always one thing that I can build on, even in a disaster, just like in a round of golf.

The people I play with

The people I play with make all the difference in a round of golf. For an 18-hole round of golf I get between 4 and 4 and a half hours to get to know someone. I prefer this much more than a networking event where we get 5 minutes together. I can learn a lot about another person, past the superficial, during a round of golf. I have had, over the years, groups of friends that golf together including Jeff, David, Andrew S, Andrew R, and Howard. Golf has helped me build and continue these relationships, which are very important to me.

A former boss gave me a compliment and a word of caution during a performance review. He told me that one of my strengths was building deep relationships and then he asked me how I thought that could be sustainable. I don’t have an answer to that yet, but I do know that golf hits my comfort zone much more than a quick meet and greet does because the group can get below the surface.

There are also the types of people you want to play golf with and absolutely don’t want to play golf with. Jeff Maynor gave us great advice that if you keep up with the pace of play, you can play with anyone. Similarly, there are some personality traits that work in basically any environment. Someone who slows everyone else down with slow pace of play is seen as selfish and an annoying golfer to play with, as is someone super negative, someone with a bad temper, or a cheater. These personalities obviously carry beyond the golf course.

It’s humbling

Here is the basic premise of golf: The player gets 14 clubs to move a ball into a hole in as few strokes as possible. The courses are laid out and don’t move during the round of play. You can use any information at your disposal including precise distances to almost every point on the course to complete the task. There is nobody blocking, no opponents playing defense, and no noise to distract you. You can use technology in your clubs, in the balls, and even on your clothing to help you accomplish this task.

Despite the simplicity and data-rich nature of the game, it is still one of the most difficult sports to play. There is also no “perfect round.” It’s impossible to get a hole-in-one on every hole. I’ve played with some really good golfers and even their rounds can look clunky, at best. They miss fairways, greens, hit trees, land in sand traps, and splash in the water hazards. On a golf course, “hazards” are, of course, strategically placed by the golf course architect to be exactly the distance the average ball travels from the previous point.

But, at the end of the day, it is just you out there, navigating the landscape. For some people, this makes golf especially frustrating and everyone handles that emotion differently. Most golfers are really out there playing against their minds.

To me, life is the same way. I find myself often competing with my own thoughts to determine whether or not something I want to do is possible. The landscape is the landscape, that’s reality, and it is very difficult to change. Life, like a golf course, is about how I choose to navigate it, work with it, and make it work to my strengths to get the job done. It may be an ugly process, but it is what, I believe, will make me successful.

Being on a golf course is one of my favorite places to be. Not only is it outside, beautifully landscaped, quiet, and peaceful, but also a place where I am fortunate to enjoy my time with old friends or making new friends. I appreciate the game as a metaphor for life and hope to continue to learn every time I get out there and hit ’em.

KEY TAKEAWAY: Golf can be a metaphor for life. It’s a great way to meet new people and keep in touch with old friends. Golf is humbling and requires skilled navigation and lots of practice and patience.

Book Review: The Last Word on Power

A mentor of mine once told me that, in his opinion, executives must re-invent themselves every seven years. It was not until recently that I truly understood what that meant.

Originally published in the mid-1990s, The Last Word on Power by Tracy Goss has deep ideas that leaders should consider. In the book, Goss explains a framework she calls, “executive re-invention.”

thelastwordonpowerThe framework is about how leaders can use self-reflection to free themselves from preconceived notions that hold them back. Goss suggests that if leaders are looking to transform the groups they lead, they must first transform themselves.

One of the more powerful ideas in the book is one Goss calls, “The Universal Human Paradigm.” The idea behind this concept is that humans believe that there is a way things “should” or “shouldn’t” be (p.77). In truth, this is a construct. Goss writes that there is really only the way things actually are. In other words, restricting judgment and accepting reality will allow leaders to accept the risk and reinvent themselves and change the world.

Goss describes the process for becoming aware of our own versions of “The Universal Human Paradigm,” and then how to reinvent oneself from that point. To free ourselves from, “The Universal Human Paradigm,” we must, “Die before going into battle.” Among the resources in this chapter is a rather dark story about Buckminster Fuller, a famous 20th century architect, and how he talked himself out of suicide to pursue the life he was too afraid to seek previously. Although this one anecdote may seem depressing, keep reading. In the steps that follow, Goss advice merits reflection and the work of going through the framework point by point.

The concepts in the book remind me a lot of stoic philosophy and how we can excel in life by accepting the world as it is.

The Last Word on Power is a dense and thought-provoking read. As I went through the book, I found myself believing in the concepts, although putting them into practice has been challenging. Like “The Universal Human Paradigm,” communities and organizations are filled with a set of paradigms and mental models that form its culture.

Unlike some of the other frameworks I have read about, this one I feel is particularly hard to implement in an existing culture, unless the change comes from the top leader of the organization. If the President or CEO undergoes a reinvention, then it can open the door for others to reinvent themselves as well. However, without that initial step, implementing the framework could come off as insubordinate, rude, or, at the bare minimum, strange.

The parts that stick with me from the book usually involve individuals going off and doing something they would rather do than work because their transition is so transformative, clear, and obvious. As someone who is engaged and happy in my current role, there are parts of the framework that feel like they either don’t apply or are unrealizable.

Still, the framework has many elements that can work for everyone. Acknowledgement that no matter how much we plan, the chances of achieving a life plan are low and knowing that our work will never feel complete are powerful to grapple with and reconcile.

The Last Word on Power is a worthwhile read. No matter where you are in an organization, exploring and working through the framework will be beneficial. This is also a great book to discuss with a learning partner because of its complexity.

KEY TAKEAWAY: According to the concepts in The Last Word on Power, re-invention starts with the work of inner personal reflection. Once we accept reality as it is, we can start to make changes in our lives to achieve important things for society. I recommend this book to explore the richness of the framework and to strive for implementation.


The Last Word on Power is available for purchase on Amazon for $16.99 (does not include Prime discount)