Monday, October 31, 2011

How to ask the right question the right way. Or fake it convincingly.

When I bought a pair of running shoes last week, the salesman said I could try them for a month and return them if I didn't like them, as long as I kept them clean by running on a treadmill or an indoor track.  I decided to try out the track at the Field House.

As it was my first experience there, I asked the staff at the admissions desk about the track rules.

"Just follow the instructions on the sign," they said.

It couldn't have been simpler.  I warmed up in lane 5, then switched direction to run in lane 6.  It didn't matter much, because I had the track to myself.

After 10 minutes, a man joined me on the track.  In lane 6.  Running the opposite direction to me.

As we crossed paths, I stepped into lane 5 and then back into lane 6.  A minute later, as we both circled the track, the same thing happened.

What the heck is this guy doing, I thought.  Surely he would have figured it out the first time.

Before we met again, I stepped off the track and re-examined the lane direction sign.  No question about it - I was going the right direction.   I got back on the track and pondered what to do.  According to the sign, I had to stay in lane 6.  I had no choice: I would have to confront this other fellow.

I had recently read a very interesting article, The Art of Powerful Questions.  It came to mind as I deliberated about how to approach this rogue runner.  While the authors' technique of constructing illuminating questions was a little high-powered for this encounter, it made me think about using "humble inquiry" as a way to show this guy the error of his ways.  Rather than ask "Did you know you were running the wrong direction?" (a rhetorical question if ever there was one!), I thought I would ask something more open-ended.

As we crossed paths again, I stopped and waved at him.

"Hi, I'm new to this track," I said.  "How does the running lane direction work?"

He smiled and said "Yeah, it's a little confusing.  Looks like the lane sign got turned around again."

Turned around?  Uh-oh.

He motioned me to follow him and we walked back to the lane direction sign.

I saw now that the sign was mounted on a wheeled stand.

"See," he said. "It's supposed to face toward you as you enter the room, but it got turned around so that you see it as you're running on the track."

I had been running the wrong direction.

I thanked him and we resumed our run.  In the same direction.

As I ran, I cringed mentally to think about how that encounter could have gone if I had asserted myself/been a jerk.  And I had every right to do that, because I was right!  I had the evidence (the lane arrow) on my side.

The spirit of humble inquiry saved me.  Or did it?  I wasn't truly interested to find out about how the rules of the track worked.  I wasn't truly open-minded about what he might have to say.  I simply phrased the question that way to be polite.

But, it worked and saved me significant embarrassment.

I wonder if it matters that my actions weren't backed up by sincere intent?  Maybe "humbly" asking "powerful questions" can be faked.

Although, I think if I keep faking it, and have it pay off like it did at the running track, I'll become a sincere convert.


  1. Kishore, being a frequent runner on that track, I have shared your confusion. It is a great QI example as well because the root cause of the problem lies in design. The "system" is vulnerable to chaos caused by a very simple change in the positioning of the sign, just as too-similar packaging of different drugs and/or dosages can compromise safety. All it would take to diminish the risk would be to add the word "clockwise" or "counterclockwise" to each lane arrow. Of course not everyone will get this right either, but the error rate would certainly fall. And yes, asking nicely, admitting the tiny possibility that one's annoyance may be misplaced, is always a sound strategy. It's the equivalent of Pascal's wager: if you're right, nothing is lost by being civil, and if you're wrong, you've avoided being a jackass.

    But more importantly, does the shoe store have to disclose that the pair I am thinking about buying has been worn by Kishore Visvanathan for a whole month? I never thought I'd get the chance to run a mile in your shoes. I guess it's safer than using your syringes....

  2. Thanks, Steven.

    The store will only be allowed to disclose that I wore the shoes if they sign the endorsement deal my agent has proposed. I can't be expected to do this for free...

  3. Executive Lead BloggerNovember 1, 2011 at 10:54 AM

    A more fundamental comment: Could the track managers make it any more confusing to walk, jog or run? Particularly in light of the number of participants!

    Sounds like the opposite of the famous Einstein quote "Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler."

  4. I love that you are brave enough to admit that you were about to be a jerk, had you not just rephrased the issue as a question instead of an accusatory statement, like "hey why are you running the wrong way!". I think in healthcare, we too often look at the other guy doing something against the stream, only to find out that WE are the ones going against the stream. Thanks again for bringing up an interesting topic,that most of us would cringe about or hide, not discuss with strangers.

  5. Hi Anon,

    Thanks for the encouraging comments! "Cringe" is exactly the right word to describe how I felt as I realized how badly that interaction could have gone. Cringe-worthy encounters leave me with a horrible feeling and I sometimes get cringe-flashbacks days, months or years after the fact.

    But, I also wonder this: If we go through our lives without accumulating cringe-moments, maybe we're not taking enough risks. Or maybe we're not engaging in enough self-reflection.

    Or am I just making excuses for jerkiness?

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