To me, the religion question was asked out of genuine curiosity. I thought that it was just a question with no other implications attached to it. It was merely part of the young man trying to understand the young lady’s family perspective.
Considering his tone and the context of the conversation though, I realized that it might be perceived as carrying an element of criticism or judgment. I watched, listened, and waited for the young lady’s response.
Would she hear a threat and respond defensively? Would she flash anger and go on the attack? Or would she simply answer the question?
“I’m a Christian,” she said calmly and confidently. No sign of defensiveness. No indication of aggression. Just calm assurance. The conversation continued without incident. It stayed friendly and interactive. No one became angry. No one argued. It came to a friendly conclusion. Success! An unnecessary conflict avoided.
I was impressed. While I do not know exactly what was going on inside this young lady’s mind or exactly what she felt, I do know what I observed. She dealt with the question as a question and not as a threat.
Everyone seems a little more defensive these days
Especially in today’s political climate, it seems like every question is loaded. Even innocent inquiries (most notably those posted on social media) are taken the wrong way. Then conflicts begin or escalate because one person saw the question as an attack or threat. Once that happens to us, our natural threat response kicks in and most of us do not respond well. Often, our response is downright negative:
- We get defensive.
- We get angry.
- We attack.
- We retaliate.
We can all learn from what I observed in this interaction between two young people. In the end, they both showed a level of emotional maturity I often see lacking in people twice their age.
Leaders must encourage questions (even tough ones)
As a leader, specifically a new leader, who may be feeling unsure or overwhelmed, it’s all too easy to misread questions. Many first-time leaders fall into these traps:
- Believing an employee who questions a plan is questioning their competence. More often than not, the employee just needs more information. However, even if he or she is trying to make you look bad, the best way to show you know what you’re doing is to answer thoughtfully, fully explain your plan, and justify your reasoning for it.
- Viewing coworkers’ questions about your team as a personal attack. Other team leaders may dig for insight into how your team operates. Coworkers from other teams may need more information to improve efficiency or communication. Don’t immediately assume the coworker is out to dredge up some dirt on you or your team.
- Assuming a supervisor’s questions prove doubt in your performance. The higher up the ladder you climb, the more disconnected you become from the every day duties of the job. If your boss suddenly starts asking questions, don’t assume he or she is looking for your mistakes or for a reason to can you. Instead, provide the information and assure him or her you are on top of everything.
Not every question is a threat. Questions are often just questions. Don’t jump to conclusions about any underlying intentions. Instead, answer them calmly, respectfully and completely to prove your professionalism and prevent conflicts.
More than that, it’s critical in your role to encourage people to ask questions, even the ones you find it difficult to answer. Providing honest, upfront answers is how you will build people’s trust in you and respect for you.