One is the best of times … one is the worst of times …
I’ve been very fortunate to be invited to participate in several speaking engagements of late. Each of them has been unique in their own way — the setting, size and age ranges of the audiences, the length of time and level of detail to which we’re able to speak. All of these things can serve to amplify the strengths or challenges of a conversation.
But what I find contributes the initial spark to that amplification actually comes from a very small and intimate place, and that’s inside the very first question posed to me by the very first audience member on whom I call to speak.
That “first question” can dictate the entire tone or direction of future questions. It’s why many a phony psychic will plant associates in the audience to direct them toward the first “presence in the room.” It’s a very vulnerable place to be. So I can understand the very real desire to steer such conversations in directions that can be anticipated and for which one can prepare.
But I embrace this vulnerable position with open arms because I believe that honest connections and sustainable growth can only come from letting people speak their minds without interference. Because they may know something I don’t, something that could strengthen the conversation, our relationship, or even the world, more than they could if I tried to steer things somewhere predetermined without giving them a chance to share that knowledge.
I believe in meeting people where they are.
So I often open the Q & A portion of any presentation I give by saying, “I am a black woman who grew up in a predominantly white community. I do not offend easily. Anything you have ever wished to ask a person of color, I will hear it.”
And I do. I’ve taken all manner of questions from all manner of people, well- intentioned or otherwise.
But it’s just that — intention — that I believe has the most power inside that “first question” that can set the tone for the remainder of an event. Someone can ask about the same thing two different ways and end up leading the conversation in two very different directions, depending on how the speaker responds. I’ll provide a few examples.
“What is the value in talking about racism?” vs. “Why are we still talking about racism?”
One of those questions is set up from a genuine place of wanting to understand why something is important. The other contains the implication that “something” is not important. Both are biased, yes, but only one is productive. Far better to ask someone why something means so much to them than to dismiss them or their needs entirely.
“What do you think it will take to ‘reach the mountaintop?” as Martin Luther King said,” vs. “Martin Luther King said judge not ‘by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,’ why are you judging?”
Both reference MLK Jr. and the struggles we face today to reconcile his words with our day-to-day lives. But one is set up to locate and explore solutions, while the other is set up as a trap to put the speaker on the defensive rather than enter into any sort of collaborative effort.
Conversations — and ultimately relationships — thrive best through collaborative effort, through systems working together. When collaboration is not present, no one learns a thing. No one grows. And without growth, ideas stagnate and provide breeding ground for infections and ultimately, death.
So if you ever find yourself in that crucial place of asking the “first question” to a speaker, consider, are you looking to meet this person where they are, or just tell them where you are? Are you setting up a collaboration, or a trap?
Like I said earlier, we all have biases. Sometimes speaking from a place of bias is unavoidable. But the decision to collaborate or trap is always a choice.
So again, if you ever find yourself asking the all important “first question,” and if that speaker you’re asking is me, even if you don’t make those considerations before you ask me your question, trust that I will always strive with my answers to meet you where you are and collaborate with you to reach a better future for all of us.
Because I believe that engaging in such challenging conversations is how we build the tools necessary to scale the mountaintop of equality. No one can do it alone. We have to work together, even in the worst of times, in order to live in the best of times.