I ended my previous article with a promise to explain how asking “where” questions can help repair a broken relationship. So, despite my embarrassment, I’d like to share a personal example which some of you might relate to and which, hopefully will contribute to all of you better understanding what I mean by “where” questions.
Some time ago, my wife and I went to our beach house for an extended weekend. The interior had been newly painted, we had installed new rugs, and it felt as though it was totally new. We closed the doors and more or less camped out. For three days things went swimmingly well. To be frank, we were like content slugs. Several days, we never got out of our pajamas. We read, watched TV, ate whatever was in the freezer, and just enjoyed each other’s company. The casualness and the lack of any demands or schedules contributed to making things go swimmingly well. On the fourth day, my wife turned to me and said, “This has been so wonderfully peaceful. It’s what I call a good time.”
But, that wasn’t the case for me. Earlier that day, I began to feel squirrely. I experienced a nagging feeling inside that made me feel terribly uncomfortable. Yet there was nothing I could specifically attribute it to. What I did recognize, however, was that, somehow, her statement caused me to become irate, to respond in a negative, depreciatory, hostile manner that was hurtful to her and embarrassing to me. Thank goodness, Harriet is used to my blowups. She usually lets them slide off her shoulders like water off a duck’s back. She just rolls her eyes in a manner that suggests I’m a bit crazy, but doesn’t actively respond to any of my unacceptable behavior. That’s typically all it takes for me to realize how inappropriate I’m being. I wasn’t proud of my reaction that day and I knew (because I read my last article) that asking myself “why” was a dead end street. Although I had no idea where I was coming from, I did realize that if I asked “why?”, I’d wind up pointing my finger at and attributing my behavior to her engrandizement of our “slug-like” existence.
At the same time, there is some credence to the notion that if she hadn’t made her statement regarding how wonderful a time it had been I probably wouldn’t have acted that way. The truth is, however, that she had nothing to do with my response. In fact, I’m sure that, if she hadn’t said a thing, I would have been creative enough to blame it on something else she said or did.
After a period of time, I’m proud to say, I finally asked the “where” question: as in “Where am I coming from? Sure, she said, did, or acted that way. I didn’t have to like it, but where was I coming from that would have caused me to escalate, and intensify my response to the point that it was even unacceptable to me?” Think about it. When you find yourself, two days after an incident occurs, still angry, uncommunicative, and speaking in monosyllables, “Yep”, “Nope”, “Okay”. You have to wonder; “Why am I still upset? What’s causing me to be unhappy; to feel a victim, and to see myself as the injured party?” The answer, if you are able to arrive at it, isn’t always a palatable one. Mainly because it requires you to honestly look inside yourself. For some of you, the painful explanation I eventually arrived at will sound like psychobabble, the kind of crazy answer that only a psychologist would come up with. Nevertheless, I’d have you indulge me for a moment and think about what I’m about to say. I grew up with an unspoken but consistent message that I gleaned from my father’s behavior. Throughout his short life, the one message I received from him was, the more you work, the tougher the task, the more you worry, the less you indulge yourself, the more pain you feel, the more sweat you expend, the better the person you are. Essentially, that your worth is determined by your work ethic, i.e., the amount of pain you can endure and still go out and produce.
Until recently, I wasn’t fully aware of that. Nor do I consciously think about it on a daily basis. But it is definitely a part of a mantra that governs my actions. Thus, if you were to ask, ‘How many days have you stayed out of work in fifty years because you felt bad, or were sick?” I would say approximately twenty days in fifty years. And each of them was following an operation or a major illness. If you were to ask how many hours I work per day, you would discover that I work 12-13 hours a day, because that means I’m a special person, driven, hard working and industrious, to just mention a few of the adjectives I would like to hear applied to me. So, it’s no wonder that, when I deviate from that orientation, it would make me feel squirrely. In this case, I had indulged myself for 3 and ½ days, not achieving, not working, not producing, and, worst of all, enjoying it. When Harriet made that apparent by her statement, it sent me into orbit. Not because of what she said, but because of what I felt; because I was already beginning to feel the gnawing dread of not being driven, tired, exhausted, and unconsciously patting myself on the back, saying “You’re a good guy, Ed Reitman”, which I would never have realized had I not asked “where.”
To my way of thinking, the answers to “why” questions, which typically include blame, reflect how almost every human being initially responds to conflictual interactions. That being the case, the next time you see yourself blaming others, acting excessively, responding inappropriately, saying things you later really aren’t proud of, you needn’t feel guilty, berate or punish yourself. But you must stop asking, “WHY?”, discontinue blaming others and go to the heart of the matter. Ask, “WHERE am I coming from?” First, so you can understand your own behavior and, second, so that you can come to peace with and make amends to yourself and anyone else you may have unintentionally hurt because you weren’t able or willing to look inside you.