The Gretchenfrage Dilemma -- Communicating as a Leader

Monday, August 1, 2011

A coaching client of mine recently used an expression I had never heard of before -- gretchenfrage -- to describe the frustration he feels when peers or associates ask him simplistic questions to complicated topics. This German expression is literally translated as "Gretchen's question." It comes from Goethe's tragic play Faust and refers to a scene where Faust's love interest, Gretchen, asks him a straightforward question and Faust is compelled to give her a nuanced response.

Some readers of the scene will empathize with Faust and consider the subject matter of Gretchen's question to be a tad more complicated than she apparently believes – do you believe in God?. Even without a full understanding of the play, one can still pick out Faust's struggle to give his naive love interest a greater insight into the complexity inherent in such a profound question. He knows she is looking for a simple yes/no answer and still he is compelled to give her his full answer.

If we look at the exchange through Gretchen's eyes, however, we see a picture of Faust engaging in a certain degree of pomposity, rambling on about an important topic without getting to the point. The reader can imagine Gretchen thinking, “What is he trying to hide?” Is it simply a case of Faust trying to mask his true opinions so as to keep her interest in him alive? It would not be surprising if Gretchen were to regard Faust as less trustworthy as a result of his answers.

And this is where the gretchenfrage dilemma applies to every leader. At some point, a peer or associate will ask you a simplistic question to what you consider to be a nuanced situation. As well as your intention may be to provide the best answer possible to a complicated matter, the more you explain and expound, the greater the risk that your audience will see you as hiding the truth. In our complicated world, too many of us try to manage this complexity by asking simple questions, never thinking the receiver can hear the questions as simplistic and na├»ve. So what’s a leader to do – give the simple, straightforward version and answer the question in the eyes of the Gretchens in our organizations or use the opportunity to educate and enlighten and give the full, nuanced response? And if it depends on the situation, what guidelines to follow to ensure your intended message is received loud and clear?

Now the excerpt.

GRETCHEN: ... Do you believe in God?

FAUST: My darling, who can (really) say: I believe in God! You may ask priests or wise men, and their answer seems but a mockery of the questioner to be.

GRETCHEN: So you do not believe?

FAUST: Don't misunderstand me, you lovely sight! Who may name Him, and who declare: I believe in Him. Who can feel and dare to say: I do not believe in Him! The all-embracing one, the all-preserving one, does He not embrace and preserve you, me, (and) Himself? Does the sky not arch above us up there? Does the earth not lie firm down here? And do not with kind glance the eternal stars rise? Do I not look at you eye to eye, and does not everything press upon your head and heart and weave in eternal mystery invisible and visible around you? Fill your heart, as big as it is, from that and when you are completely blissful in the feeling, then call it what you like: call it happiness! Heart! Love! God! I have no name for it! Feeling is everything; (the) name is sound and smoke, enshrouding heaven's glow.

GRETCHEN: That is all quite fine and good; much the same thing says the pastor, too, only with slightly different words.

FAUST: It is said everywhere (by) all hearts under the heavenly day, each in its own language: why not I in mine?

- From Faust I, lines 3426-3465

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Isabella Folmar said...
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