“What’s your excuse?”
It’s a question often asked in bad faith, combatively, in a way that is looking for reasons to pick apart the answer. It’s no surprise that it’s also often received with defensiveness, shame, and anger. Whether it’s about self-defense training, exercising, or some other form of taking care of or improving yourself, the words imply that you aren’t doing as much as you could, no matter how much you know you should. The word “excuses” has a negative connotation, and comes with the idea that if only you tried harder, weren’t so lazy, had more in you, then you would be doing the thing, so just get over it will you already? It’s such a bad word that we’ll often hear that something is a “reason, not an excuse,” and even then, whatever’s labeled that is viewed with suspicion.
I’d like to propose a shift for both sides of the question, though – one that is far more generous and productive, even if the asker and answerer are the same.
We start by changing our attitude as questioners to one of good faith and true curiosity. It might require changing our specific words, so that we’re asking more along the lines of “please help me understand your challenges.” The point of the query becomes an invitation to speak and a promise to listen and hear, and making that clear to who we are asking. “What’s your excuse?” has baggage and even though we may not intend to bring it along, it’s stuck there and it’s on us to find a way to communicate without it. As we ask, we should check in with ourselves that we really are ready to listen and hear, not skeptically preparing counterarguments. Even if we don’t say which it is, our motives can become apparent to others through our tone and body language. It’s also true that the person we’re asking may misinterpret the reason behind the question, and they may have good reason to be suspicious of you specifically or the question generally, but if we are actually interested in helping people overcome the barriers to starting or doing something, then it’s on us to put the question out there in a way that encourages real responses.
When we get them, we have to be careful not to automatically dismiss them as not being true answers or real obstacles. Even though we may not have run into those problems ourselves, or we may have been able to work through and around them, we also need to remember that we aren’t the person answering. The experiences they report and the demands that they feel are real enough to them. We need to believe them even if we think we know the way past. If nothing else, we don’t yet know what they’ve tried or the further reasons on why trying to overcome them haven’t been successful. Very often, the first “excuse” is a first step down into a rabbit warren of interconnected reasons, or a facile summary of a multifaceted problem. We need to be interested in root cause analysis, or at the very least in understanding that “excuses” can be expressions, however inarticulate, of very real issues.
As a person hearing the question, we might try assuming that the asker actually wants our answers. Instead of treating the question as a challenge, treat it as an inquiry, a reason for asking yourself why you aren’t training or working out or doing whatever it is. Even if it turns out that the question was not asked by someone interested in your answers, you can use the opportunity to examine why you aren’t and reaffirm how you want to deal with those reasons. I know it’s hard to not instantly be annoyed or more by someone who dares to suggest you might not be doing what you should, and it’s hard to face to the reasons when even you think they might not be worthy reasons for avoiding or being unable to do, or when we’re embarrassed or ashamed because they exist at all. In an ideal world, putting them out there will be met by genuine empathy and perhaps help with what can be helped. Because we know that there are too many people who will dismiss or mock us, it’s scary to be vulnerable enough to tell someone why we can’t or won’t. Maybe, though, maybe we can be vulnerable and honest enough with ourselves to whisper them internally at least.
We also need to be open to learning that a reason we find difficult or even insurmountable really can be overcome. We may have to dig deep to find all of the components to that reason and chip away at them one by one, slowly and with hard work. We may need to sacrifice in other areas. We may have to admit we didn’t know a way of addressing a problem, a resource we didn’t know existed, a method we hadn’t heard of or tried. But as we explore, we may find something that would render our excuse moot and decide that even after a genuine assessment, that something isn’t an option for whatever reason. That’s okay too, because being honest about our capabilities is also important, even if it turns out that our reason is an excuse, with all of the connotations of that word. Part of that honesty is really being certain that a limitation is one, and not a story that we’ve decided to believe because it is comforting and comfortable, a habit more than a current, recently re-examined truth. If it is a story or a habit, we need to admit and accept that fact, and revisit regularly to see if we are still truly comfortable with it.
All of this, of course, falls apart when we aren’t actually interested in communicating, when we’re more interested in scoring points or hiding from hard introspection. But if we really want to help people do a thing, and if we really want to find a way to do the thing or understand why we aren’t, then we owe it to ourselves and to the people we are interacting with to be kind when we explore the reasons behind a refusal.