Saturday, May 7, 2011

Good Communicators Ask "Disrespectful" Questions - But They Do It Constructively

It always began the same way.

Sitting in yeshiva. Rows of little desks-and-connected-chairs. 

Open windows, but still hot. Air circulating lightly. Sometimes the smell of chemicals, like from industrial plants, coming through. It smelled like skunk. (My yeshiva was near an industrial area.)

The teacher would call on someone to read.  


A girl's head would perk up from somewhere in the back row, where she was doodling or passing notes back and forth to her friends.

"Read for us Perek Beis Pasuk Gimel." (Chapter 2, Verse 3).

"Shoshana" would scramble to find the page. She would read and then translate from Hebrew to English.

And then the inevitable question. To see how well-prepared "Shoshana" was.

"What does Rashi say? How does it compare with the other meforshim (Rabbinic interpreters of the text)?"

"Shoshana," being a good student, would comply. Dutifully stating the explanation and the comparison. Bright and compliant.

I had some good teachers at that yeshiva. This one, being extremely good, would sense the student's boredom. Her disengagement. She would pull her in.

"Explain a bit further, don't just read it. What is Rashi's real question? The Torah doesn't waste words and the Rabbis don't waste their time on needless questions."

Normally - "Shoshana" would have no answer. Maybe she had her own question, and it came up while she was studying, but she thought it wasn't important. Or she buried it - not going to help with her grades, maybe going to get her in trouble for being "disrespectful." Most importantly she would never want to look like she had lost faith.

And I - watching all this - would normally ask, not always respectfully, what was on my mind. Even though the teacher had asked for a different question - the Rabbi's question - I just couldn't hold in what seemed to me like a glaring lack of logic or an error. I believed deeply in G-d and in the fact that G-d had picked me to be Jewish. But I wasn't intellectually or emotionally invested in following along like a sheep.

Thus opinions were divided on me among the teachers. They wanted you to memorize - for sure. I didn't always do that. And they wanted you to know the questions - some I knew, some I didn't. But more than anything they wanted you to have absolute faith in the tradition. To have that faith, they knew, you had to ask tough questions. You had to struggle. But never at any time could you give up the fundamental beliefs that framed Orthodox Judaism.

Unfortunately, when you ask questions, you risk giving up your faith. So you have to tread carefully.

I had a lot of good teachers in that school. They encouraged me to question, and tried to gently nudge me back to faith. I remember one exchange that left a lasting impression.

Teacher: "...and that is why faith is more important than anything."

Me: "But what if we don't have to do any of this (meaning practice Judaism in the Orthodox way)?"

Teacher: "'re taking a pretty big chance there. If you keep the commandments, you'll definitely be fine (when you die and have to answer to G-d for your deeds), even if you didn't need to. But if you don't keep them, and you were supposed to, what will you say then?"

My Zayde (grandfather) was a better teacher than all of them. I used to ask him everything. The most "disrespectful" questions possible. He never, ever flinched. Because he saw that I was asking them sincerely. He once said to me, in Hebrew:

"Words that come from the heart, go straight to the heart."

Meaning, "I know you are sincere. I'm not troubled or offended by your questions in any way."

Not every teacher was as forgiving. In fact I was called a "troublemaker" more than once. Too often misunderstood. Asking difficult questions, sometimes because I could be a smartass, but usually because I felt kind of angry to have beliefs foisted on me without any choice about whether I adopted them. And wanting to give the teachers a chance to convince me, before I automatically rejected what I was told.

It is unbelievable to me that being an adult communicator in a setting that has nothing to do with high school, often takes me back to high school. In many ways but one in particular: Asking questions can be viewed as an act of disloyalty. 

You still have to ask. If you're good, that is. If you want to be able to live with yourself in the sense that you've done the best job for the client that is possible.

Because whatever questions you fail to ask in the beginning, someone else will ask later on down the road. And then one of two things will happen. Either they will say, "That was such an obvious question, why didn't (communicator) ask us in the beginning and help us prepare?" Or more likely they will say, "Communicators are so stupid. I don't know what we pay her for."

Of course, you had the question. You just didn't want to get into trouble.

There is one difference between high school and grown-up life as a communicator, though. And you can use that difference to assist you.

High school is a place where you have little power and where your presence is only temporary. You obtain your schooling (get stuffed like a sausage with information), spit it back, "do good" on tests, hopefully develop to some extent as a human being, and do not cause "trouble" by questioning the system. They're not set up to handle that.

Communicator life is different because you are invested in an adult relationship between two parties in which the basis of your value is to ask difficult questions so that the communication products that are issued make sense. You can't just "pick up a paycheck". Your value is directly linked with your ability to see into what is going on, pick it apart rationally, and put it back together in a way that makes sense to the audience.

Therefore you cannot avoid questions. Sorry.

What you can do is handle them in a way that reflects maturity, respect, and is appropriate to the culture.

What this means is that you adhere to the following general rules:

1. Do research before asking questions, don't just "spout them off."

2. Ask questions with a constructive goal in mind. For example, "I am asking so that I can make sure you're aware of possible questions from others." You don't say "this makes no sense."

3. You are calm, not emotional.

4. You ask your questions of people who are receptive to them and don't bother people who aren't interested.

5. Last but not least, you know when questions have to be taken to someone else to ask - you know when the messenger should not be you.

It can be scary to be the lone voice in the room. But it is important to your integrity that you do that when necessary. 

Not only that - it's a professional matter too. 

Now more than ever, we live in a world of questions. It's important to your value to the organization that you know how best to ask them.