Don’t be a pole vaulter

It’s never great to take a long, run-up to a question. In conversations it’s important to both share your thoughts and ideas, and to ask questions. Balancing sharing versus questioning leads to art, but trying to do those two things at the same time leads to confusion.

If you’re a pole vaulter, you need a long runway to pick up the speed required to plant the pole and flip over the bar. Odds are you are not a pole vaulter. You don’t need a runway of context, justification, and general flim-flam to be curious. It’s not really about you. Save everyone the time, and just ask the question.

~ Michael Bungay Stanier from, The Advice Trap p73

I learned this lesson by making the long run-up mistake countless times. In the beginning of recording conversations for podcasts I made this mistake every time I wanted to pass the conversation over to my guest. After listening to dozens of my recordings and becoming aware of the habit, I began trying to change. I knew I didn’t like what I was doing, but I didn’t understand why I didn’t like it. In hindsight I can see that Stanier’s point is the linch pin: The conversation is not about me.

I can honestly wonder aloud, while unintentionally creating an implied question. To my guest, my wondering aloud is a question–shaped hole in our conversation. My good intentions are critical. Such unintentional questions are not attempts at manipulation. Because finding a new question is rare, great questions are those which arise in our minds because of the conversation. This is the sharing one’s thoughts and ideas part of the art. It just happens to work like asking a question in the flow of the conversation.

Also, I can simply ask a question. That’s the other part of the art I mentioned.

For me, the long run–up mistake happens because of fear. I’m afraid of being seen as an imposter, or I’m afraid of being seen as dumb (or prejudiced, unhinged, entitled or any of the other long list of human fears.) Afraid, I then seek safety by trying to control the situation. There is no actual control possible, but in the moment it feels that giving context will control how others perceive me. I can speak one hundred words of ramblingly context, or I can make the mistake in as few as seven words: “This is going to sound dumb, but…” Either way, the mistake is thinking it’s about me.


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