I just finished a two-hour conversation and walked away without a single answer.
I’m sure we all know people who seem incapable of answering a simple question. One of my best friends growing up had a mother like that.
“Is Jimmy home,” I would ask. Even though that sounded simple, her response was “What are you planning on doing? Were you with him yesterday when he wrecked his bike? What is your mother planning on cooking for the bake sale?” On and on….
My only recourse was to wait to see if Jimmy came to the door because his mother would never answer my question. After five minutes of listening to his mother, I’d conclude Jimmy was not home and I’d turn and walk away with his mother still grilling me from behind.
My observation is people do not answer questions for four reasons.
- Don’t know and don’t want you to know they don’t know. For many people, just the appearance of not being “in the know” is an embarrassment. The thought of simply saying “I don’t know” is foreign to them and they would rather simply dance around the issue and answer any question other than the one you asked.
- Know, but have decided you are not important enough to respond. This is seen mostly in email and voicemail communications. I’ve used this when hounded by reporters trying to get information about a project I’m working on. And its been used on me by customers when I’m trying to collect accounts payable.
- Know, but to answer the question would end their opportunity to gain other information in return (Jimmy’s mother). Many times, information is a commodity to be traded. We need to determine the value of what we are asking in relationship to what we are willing to give. This shows up many times in deciding who to ask. You might not ask the obvious person because you will have to trade valuable information. So, you find someone else who may know the answer and then ask them at a lower information exchange rate.
- Have something to hide (intentional and unintentional). Most of the time when I cannot get a straight answer, it is because the person being asked is hiding some activity behind the answer. An innocent version of this is: “What time did you get home?” The response is “It was dark, the clock on the wall wasn’t working, and I left my watch in the bedroom.” By this answer you can correctly conclude it was after the required time to be home. This same type of dialogue is often used in the workplace.
Before I go into the tactics to get answers from recalcitrant people, I want to look at what the Bible says about asking questions.
Very seldom did Jesus answer a question outright. Although He always knew the answer to every question, more importantly, He knew the question that should have been asked in the first place. He also knew that being asked a question was a teaching moment and that by simply responding would rob Him of an opportunity to teach.
As for questions asked by Jesus, most of them were questions that He and everyone else already knew the answer. Consider these verses.
“Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?” Matthew 19:16b
“Who touched my clothes?” Mark 5:30b
“Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?” Luke 12:25
Jesus’s asking a question caused the answer to be in the open for all to see. His question also makes the original asker feel as if they knew the answer and had taken steps in participating with Jesus to determine the answer.
Here are five tactics to take that may help get an answer to your questioning.
- Make sure your question is unambiguous, short, and straight forward. It should be obvious to everyone listening that the person answering is avoiding the question.
- Start with simple questions where everyone knows the answer. Answering simple questions gets them in the habit of answering your questions.
- Practice strong body language. Make eye contact, but avoid any aggressive body language like crossed arms or hands on hips.
- If they continue to resist, clarify why you need to know and what you are doing with the information. Show them that it is reasonable for you to know the answer and you will deal fairly with the information.
- My final step is to simply ask why they are refusing to answer your question. This tactic is a challenge to the person being asked to show that they are just as reasonable as you are. The concept is reasonable questions should yield reasonable answers.
No tactic will always result in getting the answers you want. Many times, just by asking the question and not getting an answer will produce the result you want.
Be sure to check your motives in asking questions; make sure they are in line with your business purposes and not driven by your ego or other ulterior motives.