After Responding to 170 Emails Following George Floyd's Death, Here's What I Found Out

Sometimes what you say is less important than what you ask.

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By Neil Gordon

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Before George Floyd's death, I had planned on sending an email to my list about a quiz I had put together on elevator pitches. My plan, before the atrocity transpired, was to send out the email on Monday, June 1st.

But by Sunday, May 31st, there were protests nationwide. And in my neighborhood in Los Angeles County, there was protests, violence, and helicopters flying overhead around the clock. It was clear that sending out a quiz wouldn't have just fallen on deaf ears; it would have been in incredibly bad taste.

Many of us struggle with how to respond to events like what happened to Mr. Floyd, especially if we're white and have not been subjected to the prejudices that face people of color in this country. We're afraid of saying the wrong thing, or taking the wrong action.

This problem becomes more pronounced for those who are in business for themselves, as it feels inappropriate to promote oneself in such a charged climate.

What, ultimately, are entrepreneurs supposed to say during these times – especially if we feel we don't belong in the conversation?

What are we supposed to say as people, period?

That Monday, instead of sending out the quiz, I did something that helped me answer that question.

Related: Helping Others Is Your Most Valuable Offering

You don't need to have all the answers

I sent an email with the subject line: "I'd like to hear from everyone on what I can do for you today." In the email I made it clear that I wanted to help but that I wasn't sure what would serve my audience in that moment. I gave them some choices: Getting on a Facebook Live to discuss the situation, sending out my usual emails about TED talks and messaging, or even sending out the quiz that was originally supposed to be sent to them.

I asked them to let me know what they needed, not by filling out a survey, but by responding to me directly.

In the 170 emails I received over the next 36 hours, I heard from people of different races and backgrounds. A few were challenging and even confrontational, but most were kind and appreciative. Some folks asked for the Facebook Live or the regular emails, and some even asked for the quiz.

But most people simply wrote their thoughts about what was happening. They explored what they wanted for us as a country, what they're afraid of doing or saying, how angry they are, how saddened they are, or what they wish to prescribe for us. Some people described an epiphany they'd had in response to everything that was happening. One person even had an epiphany in the act of writing the response itself.

I asked them all what they wanted right now, and they answered.

They wanted to feel heard.

They wanted to feel that their voice matters.

In responding to every single email individually, I showed them that yes, their voices do indeed matter.

This happened not because of what I said, but because of what I asked.

I led with a question that I actually wanted to know the answer to.

I led with curiosity.

Related: Being Vulnerable Is the Boldest Act of Business Leadership

Lead with curiosity

What this ultimately means is that in times of crisis, it is curiosity that leads to people feeling seen and heard.

Curiosity leads to healing.

There are no hard-and-fast rules on how one can lead with curiosity. What tends to be very important, however, is that it's genuine. But if you are communicating in a one-to-many format like I did with my list, you can make it known that you wish to help but are unsure of how to do that. Then offer a couple of options to choose from, as well as an invitation to share a different need entirely.

And if you're speaking to just one person, you can start with the question: "How do you feel right now?" This can lead to the initial connection, and then you can perhaps ask why they feel the way they do. And that can lead to your more direct question of what they need.

But ultimately, this idea of asking how we can serve calls upon us to worry less about what we're supposed to say. When people are asked what they need by someone they trust, they feel seen.

In asking others what they need, you may find some healing yourself

Of the 170 emails I received, one in particular stands out to me. Its author offered what I found to be an eloquent and kind exploration of what all of this means. Before responding I looked her up online to find out who she was, and in a series of discoveries, realized that she was not only from my home town in New York, but that my father was actually her sixth grade teacher.

I buried my father this past November. This was one of those coincidental stories that I would have loved to share with him, and thinking about that, I had a moment of grief. But in that moment, I also experienced a softness that I hadn't felt safe enough to have since the murder, protests, and helicopters had happened in the week preceding it.

My intention in posing the question to my email list was that I could possibly, somehow, help others to heal.

I had no idea that in doing so I would experience a moment of healing as well.

Related: How Should You Be Talking With Employees About Racism?

Neil Gordon

Entrepreneur Leadership Network VIP

Speaking Coach and Communication Consultant

Neil Gordon is a communication consultant who focuses on helping entrepreneurs, speakers and other thought leaders deliver compelling messages. He formerly worked at Penguin Random House with New York Times bestselling authors. 

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