by Steve Adubato, PhD
Legendary "60 Minutes" reporter Mike Wallace was known to ask the toughest and most challenging questions of leaders in every walk of professional life, including asking numerous presidents what some would say were embarrassing questions about their failures in office.
When asked if he felt bad for asking embarrassing questions of those in high places, Wallace was known to say; "There are no embarrassing questions ... there are only embarrassing answers."
Mike Wallace wasn’t the only person to offer these insightful words that are so prophetic when looking at the Rep. Michael Grimm blowup that has now become a YouTube sensation. At President Obama’s State of the Union address this week, Grimm was asked by NY1 reporter Michael Scotto about a federal investigation of his campaign finances.
With cameras rolling, Grimm blew a gasket and communicated for all the world to hear the following threat: "Let me be clear to you, you ever do that to me again, I’ll throw you off this (expletive) balcony."
When Scotto attempted to explain that he was just simply asking a question, Grimm responded; "No, no, you’re not man enough, you’re not man enough. I’ll break you in half, like a boy."
Like Mike Wallace said, it is the answer that is often much more embarrassing than any question that can be asked, whether you are a member of Congress or a corporate executive being pressed at a shareholder meeting.
When video of the Grimm episode exploded on YouTube, his initial reaction was to say that he was the victim of Scotto’s unprofessional communication as a reporter because he was being asked a question that was "off topic."
But that is the thing about public communication. It doesn’t matter what your communication game plan is. You have absolutely no control as to what you are going to be asked. How you choose to respond is within your control and how Grimm handled it made a slightly awkward situation that much worse.
After refusing to initially apologize, Grimm ultimately would say, "Sometimes I wear my emotions on my sleeve. ... I was wrong. It shouldn’t have happened." But he insisted, "I’m a human being, and sometimes your emotions get the better of you."
But from a communication perspective, this explanation doesn’t cut it because people who put themselves in a position to communicate under pressure must prepare themselves for difficult questions. When Grimm was asked on live television about an investigation into his campaign finances, all he had to say was, "I am here tonight to talk about President Obama’s State of the Union address. What matters to people in my district is getting this economy moving and creating jobs. The other process will play itself out regarding the issue you’ve raised and my office is cooperating fully in that effort."
If the reporter persisted, Grimm could have repeated his initial response using slightly different language. But once he threatened to throw the reporter off the balcony and break him in half "like a boy," he calls into question his emotional and mental state.
The lesson here for people in business, education, sports or any professional arena is that we always have to be prepared to be asked a question that brings up a subject that we’d rather not talk about. Something potentially uncomfortable.
Effective and prepared communicators actually practice how they are going to respond under these circumstances. It is the responsibility of any leader to be aware of these topics and to think through with his or her communication team how best to address them when they do come up. Clearly Grimm did no such thing and he paid a heavy price. Don’t let that happen to you.