Understand the Question (Before you Answer)


I wanted to write this short post as an instructive learning moment, for those who find themselves in the same situation I often am; one where I am asked a question.

Between my defined day to day duties, I am sometimes asked a question by a coworker that falls outside the boundaries of my immediate knowledge. Often times this question is asked in earnest, because I am someone they trust, someone they know they can rely on, or someone who just happened to be nearby and available at the time.

When a question like this occurs, my immediate impulse is to fire off an answer – after all I, like most everyone else, want to be helpful! The problem I run into with this impulse isn’t that my answer is wrong – it’s that I don’t understand the question being asked.

The key to effective communication is understanding what is being asked.

Just today, I was asked if it was possible to put training materials from one of our products, into a different product – kind of like a merger between products. My initial answer was affirmative – this was easy to complete!

Then I thought about the question, and realized that my coworker may not be asking about whether or not this was technically possible, but whether or not my team had capacity to complete this work. If that was the case, the answer got a bit trickier.

And then I realized that my coworker may not have been asking about the training materials themselves, but instead about access to training materials from users of one product to another – which makes the answer much more complicated and messy!

In the end, I amended my initial answer with my coworker and said that what they were asking was likely quite possible, but we needed to have a discussion about the parameters and scope of what they were asking.

It’s likely that my first response to my coworker was adequate, and all they needed to know is if training materials could be hosted elsewhere. However, I sensed, during the conversation, that there may be more of a need behind the question than what was on the surface.

I’ll find out if I am right or wrong (can I be both?) during our meeting next week – which is much better than finding out a few weeks before the project due date.

The next time you’re asked a question, first take a moment to consider what is being asked. Clarify if needed. Only when you’re sure you understand the request, will you be able to provide the right answer.

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