The most important question you can ever ask yourself or someone to make sense of a difficult situation is, "What's going on here?"
Marvin Gaye recorded a famous song asking, "What's going on?" He was trying to get people to make sense of the Vietnam War, poverty, racism, and social justice so people can peacefully take action to effect change. I somehow never paid close attention to the message behind that song. However, I recently understood the importance of this question when I read the modern classic Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro.
James Stevens, a high-end butler, is focused on being a great butler for a large house in the book. He doesn't know why the British leaders and the German Ambassador are meeting in the house in the late 1930s. They are meeting to see how the British can appease Adolph Hitler so his army can occupy Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia.
Mr. Cardinal, son of the house owner's friend, visited the owner when the meeting is taking place. He knows what's going on. He asks, "Do you know, Stevens, what's going on here?" To which Stevens replies, "I'm afraid not, sir."
Stevens did not know, nor was he curious. What was going on in the nearby room would start World War II and ruin his owner's reputation as a Nazi sympathizer. Furthermore, Stevens also did not know nor care that he was about to lose a potential life mate in Miss Kenton, a housekeeper, who was in another room.
When Stevens got older and had time to reflect, he had regrets of not being attuned to what was going on at that time. But it was too late.
We are all like Stevens. We often don't ask this simple question when we are dealing with a difficult situation. But asking the question makes you live in reality. Unfortunately, for many, living, in reality, is hard. Many prefer to live in a "matrix" where everything looks fine. But later, as they get older, they have regrets about how they could have been so naïve.
Asking this simple question is hard. But objectively answering it is harder. Doing something about it is the hardest.
So look at some examples where you can ask this question with what's going on around you.
First, you have to ask the question. Second, you have to answer it by putting yourself in other people's shoes. Third, what are you going to do about it? You alone can't fix anything, but you can do your part so you don't have any regrets later in life.
For example, my family and I were angry about how George Floyd was killed by the police in Minneapolis in May 2020. We asked the question, "What's going on here?" Though none of us has ever had a bad experience with the police (in fact, we donate every year to the local PBA for the outstanding work they do). Unfortunately, our experience is not the experience for many African Americans and Hispanic Americans.
We showed our support for a change in policing by participating in a local march for change. And we also voted for Joe Biden in November of 2020 since he talked about this issue and wanted to make a change.
Now that Joe Biden is the president, his justice department is bringing civil rights charges against the police who used unnecessary force. In addition, President Biden is working with Congress to pass bipartisan legislation to enact police reform.
We did our part by asking the simple question, "What's going on here?" Thought this question was for a national issue, but it applies to just about anything that requires a change. Change can only happen if you ask, think, act and persist.
If you don't ask this question, you can't get to the root of the problem. You will end up accepting and mouthing other people's thoughts and opinions. You can't outsource the answer to this question to anyone. You have to do the hard work.
Next time when there is a problem you see in your life, at a company, in a country, or in the world, you may want to spend some time asking, "What's going on here?" After you come up with an answer, you will know how to approach the problem or situation. At the least, you will not have any regrets later that you did not even ask this question when it mattered.
I guide people thrive on high stakes stage whether it's for a job interview, career advancement, a sales presentation or a high-stakes speech. I wrote an advanced and comprehensive book on public speaking speaking titled Winning Speech Moments: How to Achieve Your Objective with Anyone, Anytime, Anywhere. The main idea of the book is that if you want people to remember you and take action, you must create a winning speech moment.
Please contact me if you would like to thrive on high stakes stage. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 732-847-9877.
Remember, Time is Money but Communication is Wealth