Why? Because it wastes the time of everyone involved, and time is the one resource that is always in short supply.
Here are my thoughts on how to more effectively answer questions in a professional context.
First, some caveats. Note the professional part. I am not talking about when your significant other asks about their appearance. "Great, honey" is always the right answer.
Also, I am not talking about social conventions. For example, "How are you doing?" is not a real question. Unless you are sick and it is asked by your parent, spouse or significant other, the answer is "Fine, thank you. And yourself?"
So, with that out of the way, let's look at some pointers.
Answer the Question before ExplainingI can't tell you how many times a reasonable question with a simple answer is answered with a meandering explanation, which may or may not eventually land on an answer.
Start with the simple answer. "Yes," "No," "42" or "I don't know but I can find out" are all reasonable choices.
Give an answer first, then expand or explain.
Don't GuessI sometimes ask a specific question such as "Do you know who is responsible for sales at XYZ?" or "Do you know how to enable feature ABC in this program?" It's very irritating to get a response of "It's probably this …" or "You may be able to Google it."
I know people want to be helpful. However, I can guess all by myself, and I certainly know how to use Google. If the answer is "no" or "I don't know," say so.
A subsequent offer to help find the answer is appropriate and appreciated, but don't respond with only a guess.
Try Not to Answer a Question with a QuestionAssuming you understand the question, answer it before replying with questions of your own.
Unless the question could qualify as some type of harassment, then "why do you want to know?" is a not a reasonable response.
Make Sure You Understand the QuestionThe exception to the previous rule is when you don't understand the question.
"Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood" is habit 5 in Stephen R. Covey's book "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People." How does this apply to answering the question? First, listen closely to ensure that you are answering the question that was asked, and then clarify if needed.
For example, you might say: "I'm sorry. I didn't quite understand the question. Are you asking me what the schedule dates are, or about how we arrived at the schedule?"
Answer the Question that was AskedAnother issue is that people don't listen closely, and may answer a different question.
For example, on a noisy phone call I might say "I couldn't quite hear what you said. Could you repeat it?"
That would seem to be an unambiguous question or request. I am not looking for an explanation of what was said, which is the usual response I get. I am asking for a repetition of what was said.
Explaining what I didn't hear just confuses things. Listen to the question, and think about what was asked before answering.
Make Sure You Answered the QuestionAlways follow up with "Did I answer your question?"
Bonus - Ask a Question the Right WayGetting a good answer starts with asking a good question. Here is a suggested format.
- A short amount of context or a premise. This helps to ensure that people know what you are asking, but it shouldn't be a speech.
- Ask a short question to gather information. Shortness ensures clarity. Also, unless you are an attorney in court, don't ask question where you either know the answer, or if the answer doesn't matter.
- Shut up. This is critical on a conference call.
Here is an example of a bad question that violates rules 2 and 3. Imagine you are on a conference call and hear the following:
"Are … there … any … questions … because … I … am … going … to … stop … now … and … see … if … there … are … any … questions, … because … if … there … are … I … would … like … to … answer … them … so … if … you … have … a … question go … ahead … and … ask … it … now… also … I … forgot … to mention … " [goes on 5 more minutes without stopping]