Whether it is from those who work under us or our coworkers, we are all faced with questions in our daily lives. Of course, not all questions may warrant a response. But when a reasonable person genuinely enquires about something, it is important to listen and respond in a manner that serves them best.
The truth is that answering questions in a way that benefits the questioner requires some skill. Very often we answer people just to get out whatever is in our heads, without thinking about formatting our answers to suit the person’s needs.
Learning how to answer questions can be very useful. And it is also a very rewarding experience if your answers actually help them. Although there is no holy grail formula for answering questions, here are a few strategies that you can apply.
1. Go Deeper to Understand the Real Issue
Not everyone is clear about what they are looking for when asking questions. Understanding what the real concern behind the question is could be very helpful. It will let you know where the questioner is coming from. And it will help you tailor your answer to address the specific concern. Every situation requires a unique solution depending on the circumstances.
You can help a person clarify their question by prompting them to provide the information they might have left out initially. For instance, if someone asks you how to deal with a client, you can ask them further questions to understand the context. That will help you know what prompted their question, thus enabling you to respond appropriately.
In some instances, the questioner could be on the wrong path. And answering their (wrong) question will not help their situation at all. For instance, they could ask, “How do I print my proposal in pdf format?” when they should be sending it via email instead.
It is upon you to set them on the right path without appearing condescending. Perhaps they want to print it for reasons you don’t know about. One way to approach the situation is to answer the original question first. Then answer the question you think they should really be asking later.
2. Paraphrase to Make Sure you Got it Right
Sometimes people do not mean what they say or do not know how to say what they mean. You must find out what they mean if you intend to help. If you want to nail the response, ensure you answer the real question by rephrasing it back to them.
In our previous example, you could ask, “Are you asking how to deal with an unfavorable client?” The questioner can either agree or disagree. Depending on their response, you will address the actual concern or get clarification if needed.
Paraphrasing the question back to the questioner can help them find better ways to phrase the question. The clearer the question is, the easier it will be to respond. Getting it right at the start is beneficial to both parties. You waste less time answering the wrong questions. And the answers you give will be more useful since you will answer the real question on their minds.
“Google can bring you back 100,000 answers. A librarian can bring you back the right one.”― Neil Gaiman
3. Request to Offer Different Perspectives
Every problem can be seen and understood through multiple lenses. These could be psychological, neurological, or ontological. Since there are different ways of seeing the same problem, answering the question from different angles could help the questioner understand the matter more clearly. Before answering their query, ask for permission to present different perspectives on the issue.
It would also be useful to find out the information they already know before answering the question. Not only will it help you understand their perspective, but it will also save time you would have spent relaying what they already know.
4. Share Your Own or Other People’s Stories and Experiences
Often the best way to answer a question is by sharing a story. Stories are more engaging, easy to remember, and more relatable than just laying down the facts. It is easy to forget information, but a story will stick with you. Rather than picking and choosing what information to share, stories present everything in an easy to digest manner.
The next time a colleague presents a question, try sharing your experience or another person’s story. People learn better by knowing how others dealt with the same problem. However, take care not to leave out important pieces of information. Remember, the questioner is seeking to learn, so do not spare them the essential details.
If you want someone to know how you accomplished a task or dealt with a situation, break your personal experience down into actionable steps they can mimic. That might take longer, but it is the most useful way to answer the question. It makes the questioner better equipped for handling a similar situation in the future.
5. Refer Them to a Reliable Source
It is good to answer the question directly. But it is better when you back it up with a reliable source. Therefore, it might be important to refer to an article, book, or video that answers the query in-depth, especially if the source could also answer other additional related questions they may have.
When directing someone to a source, make sure it answers their specific question. Do not hesitate to seek clarification on what the questioner needs to avoid wasting their time. You can also save time by telling them the specific place on the document to get the information, especially if it is very long.
If you suggest they read a book, for instance, you can point them to the specific chapter. Then they don’t have to read hundreds of pages when looking for a specific thing.
If you don’t have a source on hand, help them find the information faster. For instance, you can tell them what specific keywords to use when searching. It might be obvious to you, but someone else could benefit from that knowledge. After suggesting sources, always go back to ensure they got the answer they needed.
If many people keep asking the same question, it would be convenient to write a well-detailed response. It may take longer to write one, but the benefits will be worth your time. Apart from giving a more detailed and comprehensive response, multiple people will benefit from the same resource. It will save you the trouble of answering the same question many times. However, documentation may not be necessary if the answer to the question keeps changing.
“Every answer begins with a question.”― T.A. Uner
6. Check if You Answered Satisfactorily
Sometimes your answer could fail to satisfy the questioner even when you think it did. Checking in to ensure the questioner is satisfied is always advisable. Find out whether you were able to answer their question or whether your response was helpful. Perhaps more questions have popped up based on your answer. Use this opportunity to find that out.
Your answer could also inadvertently leave out essential details that the questioner may consider relevant. But you can only know for sure after asking for feedback. You could ask, “Is there anything else you would want to know?” Make sure to pause because not everyone will have the answer on the spot. Give them adequate time to process the information you have just shared.
Although a phone call or text is convenient, face to face communication works best when answering questions. Thanks to video conferencing, it is now possible to interact visually across distances. Although there is nothing wrong with texting or calling, some things are said better face to face. Here you have the advantage of reading facial expressions and body language.
Granted, not every strategy will be appropriate for every situation. But learning how to answer questions is an invaluable skill. The article is in no way exhaustive, but some of these tips could be very useful when applied rightly. Regardless of the situation, it is imperative to be respectful when answering questions. For instance, don’t make the questioner feel bad because they don’t know something.
Before answering any question, ensure you are responding to the right one. Understanding the reason behind it could also help you address the real concern. If possible, you should point the questioner to additional documentation and sources that answer their questions in depth. Additionally, stories, including personal experiences, are always a good option. Finally, you should always request feedback to find out whether you did the question justice with your answer.