• Teresa Carey

Staying Above the Line: Questions to Ask and Avoid in Challenging Situations

Which side are you on? And I’m not referring to football or upcoming elections. Which side of the line are you on as a leader when faced with the unexpected and unpleasant?


If you tend to avoid blame, forego excuses, and deter drama in your organization, then the side you’re on is obvious. You are above the line vs. below it.


As humans, we’re hardwired to avoid difficult interactions. According to an article in Psychology Today, we perceive them as cognitively costly and are motivated to avoid them. Will I communicate in the right way? How will they respond? What can happen if they are offended? All these concerns and more typically create a sizeable spend in sweat equity.


In Dethmer, Chapman, and Klemp’s work, The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership, they include the map that can keep us from “going below the line.” It urges us to follow what they call out first as taking radical responsibility, and secondly, as staying curious. These first two commitments allow us to face a situation through actions that keep us above the line. In our natural state, we’re defensive and reactive. In our conscious state, we can be open and curious when we own and guide conversations from a position of intrigue.


Staying above the line starts with questions that encourage conversation about issues we otherwise want to avoid. Interestingly by using questions that start with HOW or WHAT, we keep a spirit of openness and problem-solving at the forefront. Some of the most common examples, or what I refer to as the “treasured ten” include:

  • How are you feeling about what’s happening?

  • What do you believe got us here?

  • How can I help?

  • How can we work together to make a greater impact?

  • What should we be thinking about that we haven’t already?

  • How can we look at this from a fresh perspective?

  • How can I show up as a more supportive leader for you?

  • What can we do next time to avoid a similar challenge?

  • What’s broken in our system that we should fix?

  • What questions should we be asking that we’re not?


When we respond with questions that are “below the line” we escalate emotions and defensiveness. They typically shut down communication and curiosity. They start with WHO or WHY and tend to suggest blame. Here are a few examples: I refer to these as the “fatal five.”

  • Who did this?

  • Who told you that?

  • Why did we take X approach instead of Y?

  • Why are you telling me?

  • Who made this decision?


Which side are you on? How can you use above the line questions to guide a current sensitive situation? What conversation are you facing that calls for your responsibility to stay curious? Remember, “All drama in leadership and life is caused by the need to be right. Letting go of that need is a shift all great leaders need to make.” The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership – Dethmer, Chapman and Klemp

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