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David Marquet

February 27, 2017 by Speakers' Spotlight

Are You Making It Easy For People To Share?

Captain David Marquet imagines a work place where everyone engages and contributes their full intellectual capacity, a place where people are healthier and happier because they have more control over their work–a place where everyone is a leader. In this column for Forbes, Captain Marquet looks at what leadership looks like when you tune-in to how others are feeling:

The LAX to JFK redeye flight took off on time with a lightly loaded cabin. Somewhere over Kansas a smartly dressed woman got up from her seat and started walking down the aisle. Despite a perfectly smooth ride, she took a couple steps and did a face plant in the aisle. This passenger had simply stood up too fast and temporarily fainted.

The flight attendants came running, naturally concerned about the passenger’s well being. By now she had mostly recovered and was sitting shakily in an empty seat near a friend of mine.

“Are you OK?” they immediately asked her.

She responded, “Yes, yes, I’m fine,” while covering her face and making herself as small as possible in the seat.

The flight attendants persisted, “Are you sure you are OK? How about some water?” They turned on the cabin lights.

“Yes, I’m OK. I’m OK.” She mumbled into her hands.

After several more minutes of fussing, the flight attendants moved off and turned the light off. The passenger was still curled up in the borrowed seat.

Enter my friend. She said to her fellow passenger, “It’s embarrassing to fall down in front of people.”

The fallen passenger mumbled in assent.

“… and getting all that attention when you just want to be left alone.”

“That’s right.” the passenger responded.

“So, how are you feeling?” my friend persisted.

“Well, just a bit embarrassed, I guess.”

“Does anything hurt?”

“No, I felt lightheaded but now I feel fine.”

It’s not that the flight attendants wanted to be unhelpful, it’s just that the words they were saying were inadvertently not helping.

What was wrong?

The flight attendants wanted to know how seriously the fallen passenger was hurt and how she was feeling. However, asking “Are you OK” pushes people into a binary response where they have to either assert that they are OK or admit that they are not. Most people don’t like admitting they are not OK, so they assert they are OK.

As leaders, we need ask questions in ways that make it easy for people to share what they feel, see, and think. So … instead ask open ended questions such as:

“Where does it hurt?”

“How do you feel?”

“How bad is it?”

“Tell me what happened”

The other issue with the interaction is that the flight attendants in this case were not “listening” to the passenger and attuned to her embarrassment. Either that, or their training overrode their concern for her embarrassment. If so, the training didn’t help because they didn’t deal with the fallen passenger in a way that made it comfortable for her to share how she felt.

My friend did so by showing, empathetically, how embarrassed she would feel if the same thing had happened to her.

Situations like this occur all the time at work and at home.

Instead of “Are you OK?” ask “How do you feel?”

Instead of “Are we good here?” ask “How good are we?”

Instead of “Are you good to go?” ask “How ready are you?”

Instead of “Was everything to your liking?” try “How was your meal?” or “What would have made this evening perfect?”

Remember, we can only control ourselves and as leaders, need to take responsibility for making it comfortable and safe for our teams to respond. A lecture about sharing what everyone knows in a culture where black and white responses are expected won’t change behaviors and worse, will make you look like a hypocrite, with a gap between what you are saying and the culture you are reinforcing.

So, if you see someone who’s had a tumble, don’t say “Are you OK” but rather “where does it hurt?”

David Marquet/Forbes/February, 2017