Responding to Questions

May 03

While waiting in line at the grocery store, I couldn’t help but notice the adorable little boy and his mom ahead of me in line. The little boy peppered his mother with dozens of questions, to which his mom responded with such care. It was clear she didn’t view her son’s questions as an annoyance or mere distraction.

Instead, she seemed to view the questions as an opportunity to engage her son and address those things that concerned him. Watching her attention to detail, patience, and candor reminded me that becoming proficient at the art of responding to questions is an essential skill that has as much importance in the supermarket as it does in the workplace.

Here are a few things you need to be able to do to master the art of responding to questions:

Welcome The Question No Matter What It Is

Understand that the question comes from a need for understanding, clarification, explanation, or information. I’m not suggesting that all questions are equal—often, some are better than others. Instead, I’m suggesting that all questions deserve a direct and gracious response, which can help you understand where the other person is at a given point in time. Never characterize the question as being a good one or a bad one. This leaves the questioner either feeling patronized, insulted or skeptical about your ability to be candid in your response. The answer should stand on its own and shouldn’t impact your ability to answer directly and respectfully.

Listen Without Judgment and Seek Clarification When Needed

Often we tend to listen for what we think the other person is saying. Misunderstandings abound when we listen with our intent rather than to what the words are actually conveying. Listen closely and without judgment to the person’s words. If you’re unsure what they are asking, it’s time to ask a question in return. Summarize what you heard and ask the other person to affirm that this was their intention. Responding effectively to a question means listening in terms of what is being said, along with noticing the words chosen and the non-verbal signals. So much can be learned about how to shape your response from non-verbal communication and word choice.

Never Put Off the Answer

Perhaps the most annoying thing to anyone who has asked a question is to hear, “I’ll get to that in a minute, but….” To the questioner, putting off the answer to the person’s questions leads the questioner to conclude that either you don’t have the answer or you don’t consider their question important enough to address. Even worse, the questioner is instead preoccupied with when and how you will address their question. If you don’t have the answer to the question, say so, and then offer to find the answer when you think you’ll be able to give them one.

Learn How to Handle a Difficult Questioner

Eventually, you may encounter a person whose sole intent with their questions is to point out a weakness in your position. In these cases, look the person directly in the eye and continue answering in a professional but steady manner. Trying to evade the question or directly taking on the person in a confrontational way will only result in losing control. Sometimes, despite your best effort to answer a question, the person may persist or press their point. At these times, have a prepared response that will allow you to exit the conversation without alienating the other person. Something as simple as saying, “I can’t answer you with anything other than I’ve said already,” is sometimes the best possible course of action in that situation.

At the very least, answering questions—and even inviting them—is the best way to glimpse into the mind of another and understand where they are before we try to be understood by them.