Be Brave In Your Relationships

“It is better to stir up a question without deciding it than to decide without stirring it up.” Joseph Joubert

The contents of this book changed my life, and it will change yours. But let me explain.

It was August, 1979, and I got a phone call from my father that changed my life forever. He was crying so hard that I could barely understand him. He had come home from work and found his wife’s body. She had committed suicide.

That was just about the last thing I expected in life. Those things only happened to “other” people. Besides that, my mother was a great mother to me and a great wife to my father. She attended church, went to her bowling team, and everyone liked her. But she killed herself.

My father and I proceeded with the funeral preparations. Everything about the funeral was “nice,” and everyone who attended was “nice.” My colleagues at the university sent some flowers. And that was “nice.”

But something strange happened. When I went back to my professorship a few days later, nobody asked my anything. They were great colleagues, but they were taken off guard. They didn’t know what to ask or even what to say. So they pretended nothing had happened in my life.

Of course we would talk, but it was always superficial. We’d talk about the weather, and they’d say, “Have a great day” and “See you around.” But no one bothered — or no one dared — to ask any deeper questions about the monumental changes that had taken place in my life.

After six months of that, a professor from another department stopped me while I was walking across the campus one day. He said, “Just a minute, Alan. I know you’ve gone through a lot of changes in your life the last few months. I hope you don’t mind if I ask, but I do care. I was just wondering how you’re really doing.”

I thought to myself, “Mind? Not at all.” It felt great to have someone ask, “How are you doing?” and really mean the question. It felt so much better than all the other folks who asked “How are you?” and kept on walking before I answered.

My Observation

From that experience, I realized that many times we don’t know what to ask our coworkers to build stronger work relationships. We don’t even know what to ask our friends and family members much of the time.

So I began to watch people. I watched the professors and students at the university. I watched the people in organizations where I delivered seminars. And I watched the people in restaurants as I traveled across the country. I watched everyone.

I made the same observation everywhere. Lots of people don’t know how to connect on a deeper level. Much of their communication is about the things they have to do and the people they know. The rest of their communication is focused on relatively unimportant topics such as the weather, the football game, and what’s for dinner.

I noticed something especially interesting in restaurants. If I saw a man and woman leaning towards each other, talking and talking, I found out that more often than not, they weren’t married.

By contrast, I noticed other restaurant couples who were looking around and hardly talking at all. And when they did talk, it was something superficial like, “How’s your steak, Emily?” Strangely enough, these non-communicative couples were often the “married” couples.

I wondered what had happened. Why did so many couples start out with great communication, or at least pretty good communication, and end up with none?

After all, when those same “married” couples were dating, they probably had a million things to talk about. They were asking each other questions about the future, their hopes and dreams, and their thoughts on children, education, hobbies, careers, and everything else. In fact, saying “Good night” to one another at the end of a date felt like torture. They didn’t want to stop talking or be apart. Then five or twenty five years later, those same two people may have difficulty talking on levels deeper than “How’s your steak, Emily?”

So I wondered some more. I wondered what could be done to help people get through the challenges of life. I wondered what would keep their communication vital and alive. And I wondered what kind of communication would help team members and coworkers build greater trust and understanding.

The Answer

The answer came a short time later. I was attending a five-day, personal-professional development program being led by Dr. Sidney Simon, a professor from the University of Massachusetts. It was by far one of the best workshops I had ever attended, and he was by far the best teacher I had ever encountered. I was impressed, to say the least.

Somewhere in the midst of the five days, Dr. Simon talked about “brave questions.” “Brave questions” were deeper, gutsier, more personal questions than the ones we normally ask. And he said it worked best to do a series of twenty questions at a time. There was something about twenty that worked especially well in building open, honest communication.

Dr. Simon demonstrated. He asked for four volunteers from the workshop audience, two people who knew each other very well and two who had never met. They were instructed in the “brave question-20 questions” approach and encouraged to go for it, to take a risk, and give it a real try as the rest of us listened in.

It was awesome. In a matter of minutes, the couple who didn’t know each other knew more about one another than friends they had “known” for years. And the couple who knew each other quite well experienced more closeness and understanding than they had in a long long time. All four of them were profoundly touched, and so were the rest of us in the audience.

My first serious use of the “brave question-20 question” technique came in November, 1983. I was invited to a wedding along with my 83-year old grandmother. It was during our two-hour drive that I decided to “go for it.”

But as Paul Harvey says, you’ll have to read next week’s Tuesday Tip for “the rest of the story.” I’ll tell you how Brave Questions changed my life, improved my business, and is transforming people at home and coworkers on the job.
You won’t want to miss those stories.

Action:  Refuse to settle for anything less than the best in your relationships. Start asking more Brave Questions and you will strengthen your relationships with your friends and family members. And you will build more effective relationships with your teammates and customers.