Alex Trebek Taught Us to Choose Presence Over Judgment
Grow Your Business, Not Your Inbox
I remember the first time I was uncomfortable with something Alex Trebek said.
It was during the final round on Jeopardy!, and he was going over the contestant’s responses to the last clue of the episode. The contestant with the most money was way ahead with $22,000 and revealed his response last. After the contestant got it wrong he was left with zero dollars because he had wagered everything.
“You bet it all!” Trebek said. “Cliff, why would you do something like that?”
As it turns out, Trebek was saying this to a fictional character — none other than Cliff Claven, played by John Ratzenberger. Trebek was making a guest appearance on the show Cheers. It was back in 1990, when Trebek had been host of Jeopardy! in real life for about six years.
Jeopardy! was a way of life in my home, in that we watched it every night at 7:00 from Monday through Friday. Back then I didn’t have responses to any of the clues — as a seven, ten, or thirteen year-old I knew almost nothing about anything.
But when that moment on Cheers aired — a moment we would see many times on reruns in the years to come — I knew something wasn't right.
In that moment, when Trebek asked Cliff why he would bet it all, he didn’t do what Alex Trebek always did when someone faced a moment of adversity. He didn’t have a sober but empathetic downturn in his voice — “I’m sorry, that’s not the correct response” — before turning to the winner with a far more positive air.
I got hung up on that moment in Cheers because Alex Trebek did something I had never seen before, and never saw him do again.
Alex Trebek took a tone of judgment.
Something that lies beneath the vitriol
Of course, Trebek’s slate remains clean in my book, because that moment was created by script writers. Trebek questioned Cliff in that way made for better storytelling.
But Cliff’s reaction helped the story along as well: He insisted that his response was technically right and expressed it in an agitated way. And regardless of how fictional that moment was, it recalls something that is incredibly real — and incredibly relevant as we near the end of 2020.
There has been a great deal of vitriol this year. The tragic killings of George Floyd, Walter Wallace Jr., and others have inspired waves of protests, and a charged political environment has found people calling each other racists, hacks, extremists, and nutjobs.
Just this week someone forwarded me an article published on a very popular site. The author of that article called a politician a word I’m not even inclined to share here in this piece.
These times place a particularly significant spotlight on the judgment we feel toward others. Because of the level of polarization, we’ve become more antagonizing in our actions than ever.
It’s easy enough to recognize such blatant, aggressive ways of judging others, but the truth is that this constant tension trickles down to seemingly more innocuous moments — those of momentary misunderstandings, disagreements, and misconstrued glances. These daily interactions become combustible.
Unlikely though it is, however, Alex Trebe's career is an inspiring example of a best communication practice. His was a practice that can not only help us to collaborate better and enjoy greater outcomes from our businesses, but open the door to enriching our personal relationships as well.
Our richer opportunity
Consider what would happen if, in the coming weeks, you found yourself in an overly crowded supermarket. Despite the staff’s best efforts to regulate the experience in response to the pandemic, the madness of the time of year means that holiday stress plus Covid-19 fears leads to a less than desirable number of people in the produce section.
As you investigate the apples, you suddenly have to sneeze. Even though you don’t have any other symptoms, and even though you’re wearing a mask, and even though you stick your head inside your coat and sneeze into the armpit of your sweater, you notice when you emerge that a woman near the pears shoots daggers at you.
“You shouldn’t be in here if you’re presenting symptoms,” she says, ice in her voice. Her tone carries the unmistakable quality of judgment.
At this point, you may feel like defending yourself, saying “It’s allergies,” or “I had a test just this morning and tested negative,” or “I’m wearing a mask and sneezed into my coat, what do you want from me I’m doing the best I can and good lord if the pandemic is this terrifying to you then order some stuff on Instacart to be delivered to your home!”
But if you said any of these things, you would be perpetuating that quality of judgment — for in defending yourself you would be implicitly judging her indictment of you.
So this leads me to a question.
If presented with the same moment, what would Alex Trebek do?
Remember, other than a fictitious confrontation with a sitcom character, his record was pretty much unblemished. He didn’t agitate moments of adversity, such as reacting to inept responses from contestants or their awkward plays for attention. He simply leaned into those moments and responded with presence rather than judgment.
If presented with that same moment, Alex Trebek would have perhaps lowered his tone to acknowledge the moment of adversity and offered a sober but empathetic response.
Putting our inner Alex into practice
Of course, this is conjecture based on his on-screen persona. I’m sure even Trebek had off-days from time to time. Still, if you’ll indulge me in this bit of whimsy I offer you a simple way to channel your Inner Trebek.
When someone says or does something to you that can escalate into a confrontation, breathe in for the count of two and out for the count of four. As you do, look in their left eye. Ask yourself what those eyes have seen. And then, if they’ve said something either aggressive or passive aggressive, ask them something that’s open-ended and about them. This could be something like, “What is it you would like right now?” or even “How can I help make this better?” Ask as if you’d really like to know, as opposed to as a weapon with an edge in your voice.
In practicing something like this, you’ll be harnessing the antithesis of judgment: curiosity. Because the simplest way to mitigate the tension that builds with another person is to become actively curious about their world.
As we leave 2020 behind, we’re presented with many challenges and a historically significant polarity across the country. Are we going to add to the problem with an ongoing sense of judgment, of scorn for those around us?
Or are we going to be more like Alex Trebek? Will we be present and empathetic even if others give poor responses to the clues life throws at us?
When I told my mother that I was writing an article on Alex Trebek, she said that I had her permission to say that “Alex Trebek is my mom’s all-time favorite game show host.”
I have a feeling she’s not alone. I have a feeling that many people’s lives have been touched by a man so unassuming in his role of 36 years that they may not have even considered what his example means.
But if enough of us remember to choose presence over judgment, perhaps we’ll find our way out of this darkness.