A question is a statement that solicits for a response or answer. On a daily basis, you get to ask to be asked questions. Some questions a open ended requiring explanation, elaboration and so on while other questions are closed requiring just a Yes or a No. In some instances others ask questions that do not necessarily require a response but just for someone to listen to (rhetoric questions). Depending on the structure of the question, the response that follows must address what the question is looking for. Many people fail in exams not because they are dull but because they fail to understand what is being asked of them. Failure to articulate the question correctly leads to incorrect action or response. After a presentation, you must feel good if people do ask you questions. It may be a sign that people were engaged in the presentation and that the presentation generated interest in others. How you answer those questions will enhance your audience’s view of you or boost their confidence in your product or services. As a professional you will have to master the art of asking relevant questions but most importantly how to answer questions effectively.
1. Understand the question – Before you plunge into answering a question, make sure you are clear in your mind what the question is about. There is no harm in seeking clarity over what is being asked. Ask politely “I am sorry, I do not seem to understand what you are asking, would you mind rephrasing?” You will communicate better in such an instance than simply blabbing away with no clarity or understanding. Remember that the essence of answering questions is for you to make a positive contribution to the one who is seeking an answer. Do not waste time. Seek understanding first.
2. Listen carefully to the entire question – One way that can enhance your effectiveness in answering a question in a relevant and objective manner is when you allow the person asking the question time to finish asking. Some people take time to specify exactly what they are looking for. Answering a question before it is fully asked may seem disrespectful. Do not assume that you know the direction the question is going hence you want to help the person to get to the point. If you have time, let the person “ramble” while you take note of key points. It also gives you time to synthesize and think of the best answer to the question. The ability to listen gives you a high success rate in your answering of questions.
3. Pause and think carefully – You have to determine if you are qualified to answer the question or someone else is. Are you authorized to speak on that subject (journalists can haunt you even if you are not supposed to be to the company spokesperson)? How deep should the answer be? Pauses and moments of silence show that you are not simply churning out whatever raw material you have in your mind but a clearly thought through answer is coming. You can actually prepare the person expecting an answer by saying “Let me think…, Let me see..”. That way the person does not sit and wait thinking you have not heard, you are simply ignoring etc. Thinking through also helps you to come up with statements that you will not regret about later. You can assess the best way to answer with wisdom without leaving the person with scars or fresh wounds.
4. Answer the question and stop – Having understood what the question means, your role is to answer to the best of your knowledge and stop. The tendency to volunteer information that has not been asked for does not add value to you. If anything you dis-empower yourself. I have come across people who after being asked a simple question like “Where are you going?” they will stop and think you have the whole day to listen to the name dropping, lengthy explanations giving all the background leaving you to just say “Oh really, aha, Oh I see”. Get to the point and stop. When you always say mouthfuls of information, lies are inevitable. You can easily begin to confuse yourself or say conflicting statements without noticing it. I have seen people who lose cases in court because they keep saying statements which are then used against them at a later stage of the proceedings.
5. Relax and be confident – It is interesting to note that sometimes the same question can be hard to answer depending on who and what setting the question is being asked. If you are asked on a bus by the person sitting next to you; “Would you mind telling me about yourself”, it may be a lot easier to articulate the question than when you have a panel of four or five people in an interview room where you are looking for a job. The same question can bring different answers. In the first setting you can relax and speak about social issues while in the second setting you almost feel that every answer must point to how hardworking you are and all the positive things in life. The important key to the flow of answers and effective answering of a question is to relax and be as natural in your answer as possible. You do not want to seem like you have a rehearsed speech somewhere which you are trying to remember. Relax and let your creativity flow. Breathe normally and be at ease.
6. Master the general nature of questions – The most common questions are centred around What? (seeks for detail), Where? (seeks to know the place or location or stage) Why? (seeks to understand the reasons behind) Who? (is soliciting for the people involved) When? (seeks for the date and time it happened) How? (desires to know the process or step by step breakdown of an event) Whose? (identifies the owner). Other questions are like statements that solicit for detail. They give you the indication in such statements as Illustrate, explain, clarify, state, describe, investigate, list and so on. Watch out for such words in order to deliver an answer that is relevant to what is being sought.
7. You may not know answers to every question – It is a noble thing to let some questions pass. You are not the encyclopedia of every question that you come across. Admitting that you do not know the answer is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign that you know yourself and would not want to participate in a guessing game. I have great respect for people who even in interviews will tell you “I am yet to come across that concept but it sounds really exciting” than one who agonizes over the fact that every question has to be answered and still wastes the next five minutes giving a lecture which is innocent of the truth. Sometimes in a group setting, admitting that you do not know the answer to a question will bring you so much wisdom that could be hidden in the person you are sitting next to; the kind of wisdom you can never even find in books.
8. Avoid always answering a question with a question – There are people who will never attempt to respond any other way other than asking a question back. An instance where this is acceptable is in a classroom setup where a student asks a question and the teacher has no clue what the answer is. He/she can creatively ask “Is there anyone who can help with the question?”. He is not immediately admitting ignorance to the question but gives the teacher time to synthesize the answer from other participants. I have always been a victim in terms of answering a direct question with a question. What birthed this topic is a question my wife asked me which was simply and to the point “Are you going to the office later on today”. My immediate response was not about the office but “Why?”. My answer would have been either a “Yes, I am going, is there anything you need, do you want to come along?” instead of an outright “Why” before giving the response. She immediately told me “You better do an article about answering questions.
9. If you are the expert, then show it – Sometimes people ask questions as they know you are the one better placed to know the best solution out. In instances where you know your stuff then provide the rich answer required. Backup your answer with relevant examples, where necessary. Just avoid giving lengthy explanations where a simple answer would have worked. In a Science class, if the students ask you to explain about the process of photosynthesis; you will not answer this in a one line statement but bring in your expertise, go out and get different kinds of leaves to illustrate so that the students get understanding. Similarly, in a boardroom, if you are the head of Operations then it must show. You cannot have other people seem to be the experts in your area when you are there. Be the authority in your field.
10. Avoid judging the person asking – It is easy to think that the person who asked a question has no knowledge in a specific area. When you are quick to judge you risk being embarrassed one day. Some people ask questions about areas they have PhDs in. They steer discussions in the direction of their areas of specialization. When a question is asked, avoid attacking the person for asking but stick to the point and answer what is asked. Avoid such statements that sound judgmental. When signs of judgment come into a discussion then this becomes a barrier to effective communication. No one will listen objectively to what you are saying. Say what you know and quote what you have heard others say.