Every day we hear dozens of questions asked and answered, so what I’m going to say is probably a kind of situation most of you are familiar with.
Why do we ask questions?
You get a question asked, and it’s the casual type one – you’re expected to give an answer within few seconds, and it’s perfectly okay if you don’t know the answer – the person who asked you will just move on to try his luck with someone else.
How often do you get asked questions? I mean, any kind of question – be it something related to the position you have in your company or some personal advice people want from you? Rarely will you have not a single question asked during an average working day. Chances are, you’ll be asked at least few times during your day. And depending on how popular or smart you are, people will turn to ask for your wisdom more and more.
Giving valuable answers
When asking questions, surely people tend to note your answers and how correct and accurate they are, but they also look at your ability to face questions you don’t have an immediate answer for. Sometimes they deliberately ask you a question no one can answer, and they simply watch how you play it. In fact, your ability to find an answer to such questions is considered to be one of the best personal and professional skill you can possess.
First things first – no lies. If you don’t know the answer, don’t lie about it – just be strong enough to admit your lack of knowledge on the subject. Don’t say anything just for the sake of giving some kind of answer – your good reputation and trust of your colleagues may be lost with just one stupid answer you gave abruptly and without proper thinking on it, yet it might take you hundreds of brilliant, intelligent and perfectly correct answers to earn this trust and respect again.
Then, know your strong points and your weak areas. Learn to quickly give any question an estimation which suggests whether you’re capable of answering a particular kind of question or not. Always remember: you’ve got your trust and respect to protect. Evaluate each question, see how important it is to others that you give the correct answer.
How to answer questions
Answering questions is easy, once you stick to this idea: a question is asked, because someone wants to know a correct answer. What kind of answer is correct? Most people would agree, that to give a correct answer is to provide a meaningful and useful information, which is 100% correct in your opinion. But not many people realise that simply saying “I don’t know, sorry” is a correct answer as well. Don’t let this idea get out of your sight when you’re looking for an answer.
Remember: you were asked a question because someone believes you to be a reliable source of information. If you say “I don’t know”, your credibility stays the same, because you’ve estimated all the factors, realised you don’t know the right answer, and you’re being honest to say so.
But if you decided to give some kind of answer, and it later proves to be an incorrect one, your credibility will be shaken – people will think and try to understand why you gave this answer instead of simply saying no. And they will probably think something along these lines about you: You simply tried to trick them. You deliberately tried to mislead them. You didn’t know the answer but you were too ashamed to admit it, so you opted for telling the first thing which came to your mind just to look more knowledgeable than you really are.
And as people think of it more and more (remember, we’re talking dozens of questions asked and answered daily), they will make their opinion up about every person they ask around, and it will be very hard to change their attitude to a given person at a later time.
To people looking for some answers, it is important that they get the correct answer. So if you say “I don’t really know”, they will thank you for this anyway – you haven’t given them the answer, but you haven’t given them a false one neither – so they think something like: Oh well, you can’t know everything. I’ll ask someone else.
And they do. And the next question they have from a different field, they’ll probably think again: Hey, why don’t I ask this guy first – so what if he didn’t know answers to lots of questions asked before? He certainly has some strong points, so maybe he knows exactly the answer I need?
Patterns we all follow
So when we look at a certain company, or a group of people within, talking to each other and asking questions, it’s obvious that everyone follows some kind of pattern when dealing with questions raised.
Some people, when they face a problem or see something they can’t understand, decide to concentrate for a little bit more and see if they can manage on their own. Others immediately opt for asking someone around – this smart guy at the end of the corridor is a good option, or this lovely girl just across the cubicle – it’s not a big deal if they don’t know the answer, but it’s definitely worth a try.
And in exactly the same way, people follow various patterns when asked a question. Some couldn’t possibly care less and they will say anything simply to get rid of you. Others will take you so seriously that even if you thank them and return to your desk, they will hunt you down after a lunch break to hand you in a pile of paper with their formulas and graphs, representing the ideal answer to your question.
Yet another category of people will fairly quickly think of your question and give you a yes or no, and then forget about it. I think this is the most common category of people. Very efficient approach: they think over your question, they honestly try to find an answer, and they give up or give you an answer fairly quickly.
Productivity tip: answer every question
What shocks me though, is that this most common category of people will never come back to your questions once you’re gone. That may be okay for the questions they answered correctly, but it’s a mystery to me why people don’t get curious when they didn’t know the answer.
Again, it’s a case of judging the question – if you see it’s somehow relevant to your work or other activity, you’d probably get a little bit more irritated with yourself for not knowing the answer, but even after this – most of us will simply forget about it few minutes later.
Now, I obviously don’t belong to this most common category of people. ANY question I couldn’t answer will raise some interest in me. But if it’s related to my profession, I simply can’t throw it away – if I have a spare minute, I’ll find the answer myself or google it. If I don’t have an immediate chance to answer the question, I’ll most likely think of it in the background, so once I’m at home, I’ll make some time specifically to find the answer. This way, if I ever get asked the same question again (and you know how some people like coming back to you the following day with the very same question, don’t you?), I’ll definitely have one, and it will be the 100% correct one cause I’ve specifically looked for it.
Some people will say it’s impossible to know everything. And I totally agree. And even if that was possible, you don’t have all the time in the world. And this is true too. But it’s never harmful to expand your knowledge a little, is it?
Once you master questions judgment and estimation, you’ll be able to see how important this question is and whether it’s worth your time and efforts thinking of an answer or looking for it.
Sure it takes time to find an answer for something, but you’ll be surprised how many answers are really easy to find, and once you get into a habit of resolving most of unanswered questions, soon enough you’ll realise that these simple questions and found answers have started building your fundamental knowledge – they help you answer others more quickly, and save a lot of your time in the long run.