The One Question You Need to Stop Asking Yourself During Difficult Workplace Situations and What to Ask Instead

“The most profound personal growth does not happen while reading a book or meditating on a mat. It happens in throes of conflict – when you are angry, afraid, frustrated. It happens when you are doing the same old thing and you realize you have a choice.” Vironika Tugaleva

I entered this world being deathly afraid of pretty much everything. 

I worried about saying the wrong thing, asking a stupid question, underperforming… I basically white-knuckled it through the beginning of my career.

As I look back on those years, I can now clearly see the one painful question I kept asking myself during every difficult situation: 

“What if they get upset?” 

Have you ever asked yourself a version of this question? 

Maybe you’re afraid to tell an employee that you’re disappointed or that you need to set a limit with her. Or perhaps you struggle with speaking up to your boss or a coworker. 

We’re often afraid of rocking the boat because of the feelings of disconnection and discomfort that we believe will ensue.

We desperately want to belong and get along. Or as Brené Brown might say, we’re wired for connection. 

“What if they get upset?” is asked in the present, because that’s what fear does. 

It makes you question yourself… right now… in this very moment. 

And it can be paralyzing.  

I believed that by keeping my mouth shut, no one would notice that I’m the outsider… the odd ball out who didn’t agree with what was happening. 

And yet, in spite of my best efforts at hiding, I somehow still always felt like the outsider. 

Funny how that works. 

As I started to process my fears, I began to realize how pervasive these feeling are. No one is immune to them, regardless of your status or station in the workplace… or in life. 

And this, ironically, made me feel less alone. 

Through lots of soul searching and tough conversations with myself, I eventually learned to ask a new question during difficult moments. It helped me to find the courage that I needed to dive headfirst into difficult conversations… and it still feels like a giant exhale today:

“Who am I?” 

“Who am I?” gave me the permission to get to know myself… instead of worrying exclusively about the other person’s reaction. 

It helped me to accept the person that I was… that I am. 

And it helped me to become at peace with her. 

It also helped me to ask the next question that I did need to ask about the other person… and not from a place of fear, but from a place of genuine curiosity: 

“Who are you?” 

The funny thing is that you can’t really ask “Who are you?” (about the other person) until you’ve a least somewhat answered “Who am I?” 

Because doing so leaves you open to thinking that you and others are the same. 

Spoiler alert… 

You’re not. 

When you ask, “Who are you?” from a place of deep connection with yourself, something almost magical starts to happen. 

You not only remain at peace with yourself… but you also become more at peace with others. 

You don’t feel the desperate need to change them. 

Or fix them. 

You can just let them be… and find a way honour yourself and your needs at the same time, whatever that might mean for you in the situation. 

Because when you truly examine yourself, you see that you are everything. 

The good, the bad, and the ugly. 

And when we can accept it all with compassion, we realize that we all have qualities that are awesome… and we all have stuff we’re still working on. 

My stuff may be different than your stuff… but it’s all still just stuff. 

And this awareness makes you more compassionate and accepting all around.

When I work with leaders in my coaching program, I help them figure the “Who am I?” question out. Sometimes by asking other questions like,

  • When you eventually leave this workplace, what do you want your closest colleague to say about you at your going away party?
  • How will they describe your impact on this workplace?
  • What will they say about how you handled difficult moments?
  • What will they say you taught them?
  • What core values of yours did they admire?
  • Which of your quirks drove them nuts and how did you self-manage your “stuff” to the best of your ability?

And for the really daring leaders, we actually do this exercise as a eulogy… not in a morbid creepy kind of way. (If you know me, you know that I’m probably one of the most positive people you’ll ever meet :)) But in a “What’s the legacy that you’d like to leave behind?” kind of way. 

I hope this little story inspires you to wonder about the questions you ask yourself… especially in those situations where you’re feeling stuck. Perhaps you might even try asking:

“What am I really afraid of here?” 

And then… “Who am I?” 

And after that maybe… “Who are they?”

And finally, “How do I want to be remembered? (in general… and then in this situation.)”

You might just get the clarity that you’re looking for… and I promise, if you find the courage do this regularly, it’ll be the adventure of your lifetime.