Virginia Tech: A Dumb Question Might Have Saved Lives

An article in this morning's New York Times about the massacre earlier this week at Virginia Tech reminded me of the importance of not making assumptions.

The article explains that the reason campus investigators didn't lock down VT campus after the first two shootings - a move that might have saved thirty lives - is that they were following up on a lead that suggested the murderer was the boyfriend of one of the victims.

It was a good lead, or so it seemed. However, during a two-hour pause in the shootings, while investigators interrogated the boyfriend, the real murderer, Cho Seung-Hui, was chaining doors and taking other measures in preparation for more carnage.

The investigators made a reasonable choice. As Col. W. Steven Flaherty, the superintendent of the Virginia State Police, said, “There was certainly no evidence or no reason to think that there was anyone else at that particular point in time.”

And I'm not here to blame or criticize them. They did the best they could. The outcome however, is far from what anyone would have wanted.

You want smart professionals doing a job like this. Most of us try to be smart professionals in our own jobs. Nobody wants to be stupid. But a couple of dumb questions might have made an enormous difference here.

As quoted in the Times, authorities “made the right decisions based on the best information that they had available at the time.” That's what all of us do, right?

Professors and students on campus had been nervous about the killer's behavior long before he acted, but as one professor said, "little could be done."

These are smart reasonable people and they all did their best. But when reasonable choices don't get the job done, that's sometimes a sign that it's time to think differently.

And of course, it's easy to to point out what they should have done, now that we have the benefit of hindsight, but there IS a way to think differently in the moment and that's worth talking about, because it can lead to very different outcomes.

It's to refuse to make assumptions, which can sometimes lead us to unreasonable, even dumb questions like, "What if the boyfriend isn't the killer?" or "What if there is a second shooter?"

Again, I'm not here to criticize anyone. This blog is written for coaches and I'm just using this story as a powerful example of what can happen when people do the right, reasonable thing and still get awful results. It's why it's the coach's job to ask dumb questions - seriously.

I'm defining a dumb question as one that is so obvious, people may not be asking it.

I'm definitely NOT suggesting that the investigators should have hired a coach to help them. And I'm also not suggesting that they didn't think about those questions. I bet they did. But for whatever reason, at the time, those questions didn't seem reasonable. I bet they wished they'd taken them more seriously.

My heart goes out to the investigators. They are probably suffering as much as anyone over this tragedy, so I apologize if this article sounds at all harsh.

At every stage of human life, people learn to make assumptions about situations and people as a tool for survival. As human life has gotten more complex and is moving far faster though, this tool has become a big liability in many cases.

For instance, if you live in a tribal culture, making assumptions about people based on their appearance, makes sense. People who look different from members of your tribe may very well be less trustworthy towards you than members of your own group. In a pluralistic society though, judgements based on appearance can be tragic. This is an assumption that has used up its usefulness.

However, reasonable people still make assumptions everyday. I'm assuming right now, that when I click "publish", this article will be uploaded to my blog. Otherwise, I might as well quit typing.

That's why it's the coach's job to listen for assumptions that may pose problems to our clients and challenge them.

"Are we certain we have the right suspect?"

The answer to a question like this is often, "No, but..." It's our job to take a hard look at those "buts". They're the cause for the assumptions!

In this situation, the considerations may have included: "We're pretty sure we have the right guy and shutting down the campus would inconvenience a lot of people and cost a lot of money and we'll be criticized if we take action and are wrong."

That last reason is huge and it stops most of us from taking courageous action. These reasons don't hold up though, if we compare them to human lives in danger.

That's why it's so important for coaches to catch our clients when they are making fateful assumptions and be willing to ask the right question and follow up with more questions until a real solution is found. Anything less can be awful.

It's also our job not to let our clients wriggle out of looking at the truth. Fear of being wrong is powerful and most people won't look at it without someone there who gently, firmly and without judgment, holds them to it. That's when clients make huge shifts. It's also when coaches earn their fees.

Our clients don't want to be wrong and often they can't afford to look stupid. It's our job to risk being wrong, unreasonable and even dumb for their benefit. We can't be too curious, too doubtful nor too nosy. That's our job.

Sometimes the smartest thing we can do is to be dumb.

Copyright, Julia Stewart, 2007

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