The Right Question

I am writing from the west coast today. My surroundings and my companions create a sense of serenity that is refreshing and rejuvenating. Only a few days ago, I was listening to the story of a woman who spent much of her life in danger and in pain. I am acutely conscious of how blessed I am. Looking out the windows at the fog coming off the ocean and hearing waves crash on the rocks and the cries of the sea birds creates a peaceful feeling that so many people will never experience.

Tonier Cain shared her story with us during a luncheon for ReMerge. Remerge is a diversion ministry that serves mothers who would otherwise face prison time and the loss of their children. Toniel, or “Neen” as her friends call her, was in that kind of place in her life. Drug addicted, abused, arrested, and convicted dozens of times, she had lost parental rights for her four kids and was intent on killing herself. Serenity and peace were things she had no knowledge of.

Throughout her life, she was in and out of facilities and treatment programs where the primary question asked of her was, “What is wrong with you?” Unfortunately, the questions we ask about ourselves and others predetermine to some degree the outcome of our inquiry. If you don’t believe me, do a little research on the science behind creating surveys. Turns out, the questions you ask have a significant impact on the way people respond.

The question, “What is wrong with you?” immediately creates a sense of blame and shame for the individual and blinds the questioner to possible issues that are not the result of personal choice. In Neen’s case, her life started with physical and sexual abuse. Her response to the pain of those early experiences led to a long series of choices that had significant negative effects. Looking at her current choices and asking what is wrong with her instead of searching out what had happened to her kept others from being able to address the real issues.

Once someone seeks to know how you got here, it becomes possible to address the underlying issues that are driving surface behaviors. It’s the difference between putting bandages on a rash and determining what is causing you to break out. Unfortunately for many people, the path to finding the cause is much more time consuming and complex than reacting to the surface symptoms.

As leaders, our responsibility is much broader than just keeping things on the rails. While our jobs do require us to ensure that the tasks get done and objectives get accomplished, our duty extends to the health and well-being of those we serve. If we care about people and believe in their intrinsic and equal value, we must use our resources and influence to give each person the best chance to live their best life.

This approach is part empathy and part curiosity. Both are driven by interest and care. Failure to look past a person’s current surface behaviors and see the drivers associated with their trauma and pain clearly communicates a lack of care. Even worse, not trying to practice empathy demonstrates a lack of interest in the person and shows that we see them as resources to be managed and optimized. I am sure you can think of a time in your life when someone acted toward you in an uncaring and disinterested manner. It sucks.

Healthy communities are composed of healthy individuals. We need to get proficient at seeing the intrinsic value in everyone, being interested in them, and caring enough to invest the time and effort to help them find their best self. Does this investment pay off? Yes. Yes, it does. However, that is not why we do it.

We invest in the lives of those in our community because without that care and concern, we have no community. None of us can survive alone. We need to be cared for, and we need to care for others too. I want to get better at asking, “What is your story? What happened to you?” instead of asking, “What is wrong with you?” Asking the right question is the first step to doing life with another person. It is a valuing and inviting action that tells another person you genuinely care and are interested in their true success, and it is The Kimray Way.