Sunday, November 15, 2009

Q & A

Words of Wisdom from Harvey:

Top techniques for answering questions

Talk about getting the answers you need—I recently wrote in this column about the best way to ask questions to get the most out of answers. It triggered several responses, including another question: Do you have any advice about the best way to answer questions?

I have to ask questions every day, in sales presentations, management meetings, interviews, preparing for speeches, and the usual things we all need to do. I like to receive answers that are complete but not overloaded with useless information, that are clear, or that are honest in admitting the respondent doesn't know.

I also have to give answers to customers, readers, employees, my accountant, inspectors and assorted others. Their questions are generally focused and necessary. My answers need to be straightforward and helpful.

The late management guru Peter Drucker said, "My greatest strength as a consultant is to be ignorant and ask a few questions." I only hope the folks who had to respond knew that Mr. Drucker likely had the answers already, and had the presence of mind to ask him a few questions of their own.

You don't have to be an oracle when it comes to answering people's questions on the job. Just give each inquiry—whether from a boss, co-worker or client—your best reply. Follow these tips to giving your best answer each time:

  1. Understand the question. Miscommunication often occurs when you don't pay close attention to what is being discussed. Make sure you understand what you're being asked, and clarify the question if you're confused. Ask the questioner to repeat or rephrase if you aren't sure what they're asking.
  2. Don't babble. If you know the answer to what is being asked, provide it quickly and succinctly rather than spending a lot of time discussing irrelevant information. My advice is to start short, and let the questioner request additional information. Giving too much information often results in the good stuff getting lost in the mix. Of course, be prepared to provide more detail or a longer answer if necessary.
  3. Remember that you're the expert. Don't be intimidated when a manager who has more responsibilities (but less knowledge of the daily workings of your position) asks you a question. Back your answer up with relevant facts and details, written and otherwise. Keep your attitude in check, and make sure you share the information in a way that benefits the person asking the question.
  4. Keep your opinions to yourself. If you're asked for a personal viewpoint, give it. Otherwise, stick to the facts. Refrain from adding anecdotal observations to your answer. In the workplace, measuring your words can save you plenty of problems later on.
  5. Don't wing it. If you can't immediately answer a question, let the questioner know how soon you can get back to him or her (the sooner the better). Trust me; you'll get busted eventually if you try to bluff your way through. That can translate into a loss of confidence, or at the very least, humiliation. As the saying goes, better to let them just think you're ignorant than to open your mouth and prove it.
  6. Don't be critical. Never answer a question with a condescending remark like, "You don't know that?" Would they have asked if they did?
  7. Admit when you don't know the answer. Say so when you don't know, but make an extra effort to refer the questioner to sources you know can be of better help. You'll be respected if you're honest.

The power of a good, well-understood answer is illustrated in the story of the carpenter who entered a doctor's office. The receptionist asked him why he was there.

"I have shingles," the carpenter replied. And so a nurse was summoned.

"Why are you here today?" she asked the carpenter.

"I have shingles," was the answer.

She took his blood pressure, temperature, height, weight, and told him to change into a gown and wait for the doctor.

When the doctor came in, the carpenter told him again, "I have shingles."

"Where?" the doctor asked.

By now, the carpenter was losing his patience. "Where do you think? Outside, in my truck."

Mackay's Moral: You'll never go wrong if you give the right answer.

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