The Question Behind the Question

My daughter, Gretchen, texted me an interesting question the other day that I thought would be an interesting one for us to reflect on together.

The question was this:

“Do you think the average person would rather be bored or stressed? If they had to choose, which would they pick?"

What I found so intriguing about this question is that I had not thought about them on opposite ends of a spectrum before.

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The contrast I usually think about for stressed is relaxed. Like when I am running to catch a plane that boards in 10 minutes and I am still in the security line versus when I am sitting by the pool, with an adult beverage, reading a book that has been on my list for months.

Similarly, the opposite of being bored, to me, is energized. Being bored is when I have complete lack of interest in something, like when my wife wants me to sit-down and watch The Bachelor. Painful! Being energized brings excitement and even joy in my life, like playing golf or watching the Cubs sweep the Cardinals in a weekend series in late September. Now that is energizing!*

But Gretchen’s question pitted running to catch a plane that is boarding while I am not at the gate; against watching The Bachelor. To me, just a different kind of painful. I was not seeing the win in the question at all.

In fact, my initial thought was that Gretchen is so smart she was trying to bait me into one of those questions that, as a dad, I wished I had my initial answer back once I heard what was really behind the question.

In a fairly typical response style, rather than answer the question, I thought that I would ask one in return.

So I typed, “It depends on what you mean by stress and what the last 60 days was like.”

It was the best I could do in the moment. And it came off so clinical and teachy. Why did I answer in such an egotistical way, rather than being open and curious?

I think my pride got the best of me. You know, my only daughter is writing to me to get my sage wisdom and advice on something. Even as I write that I can feel myself swell up. That is when I think a lot of us get caught up in our own heads. Our own high level of self-regard comes blaring though without any empathy for the person who is asking.

I so wish I had asked, “Now, that is an interesting question! Why are you asking?”

A much better response. Much more open. Much more curious. Much more about Gretchen than it was about me.

I am so fortunate to have a daughter who looks past my flaws and insufficiencies and offers me grace in the moment. Rather than beating me up about lecturing her or accusing me of always being on my “emotional intelligence game,” she said, “Thanks, Dad! A friend and I were talking about high school jobs and if it was better to have one that was kinda chill but boring, or to have one that was stressful but went by really fast.”

As I read her response I thought man I really blew that one. The answer I gave had nothing to do with the real question.

My Life Lesson

I really have to get better at this. I need to work on shedding my pride and focusing on what the person I am engaged with is really asking me. The first question is often not the real question. The skill for me is to listen to the first question and remain open and curious about what is being asked. Most of the time, I have to admit, I have no idea what is really being asked. So I need to get better at the second question. The question that sits behind the question. That is where the real gold is in relationships.

Gretchen, I am so glad to have you on my team. I truly am honored that you even thought to ask.

Foot note:
*Brandi, I will know if you edited this if the teams are reversed in this example. (Brandi is my assistant and a huge St. Louis Cardinal fan. Should be an interesting October in the life of our company.)