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Answer your way to Success.


All my career, I have been advised by more than one mentor that the key to success in life is to ask powerful questions.

Partially Wrong.

I believe that success in life comes from not asking but answering questions well. And no, not just in job interviews but in any situation in life. Be it at home, work, or in any other setting.

I am writing about my little learning in life on questions today: not to answer any question without spending a few seconds analyzing why the question is being asked in the first place.

Data has it that 99% of the respondents answered on the border of naivety when asked questions. They assume that the person asking the question is genuinely interested in an answer. The rest of the 1% did not answer immediately; instead, they delved a little deeper into understanding the intent behind the question. We cannot do justice in our answers unless we know the purpose behind the question.

Before we dissect how to answer a question, I want to share a little secret about questions I have learned over the years: my FIRST PRINCIPLE on questions. Do not answer any question without spending a few seconds analyzing why the question popped.

Contrary to what we think, people ask questions for more than one reason. Here is the WHY of the question.

  1. They know something, and they are testing our authenticity (Validation)

  2. They know something, and they want to know more (Curiosity)

  3. They want to hint that they know something (Control)

  4. They know nothing and are genuinely interested (Ignorance)

This data point(1) puts you first in a specific frame of mind for answering - Defensive or Coaching. Those are the only two ways in which we can answer a question. Answer to defend ourselves or answer to educate the other.

Before answering, we need to get into the right mind frame. Get defensive or educate. If a specific question puts us on the defensive, it is best not to answer but to turn the question around and put the person asking the question on the defensive.

The rule of thumb: For validation & control questions (1 & 3), the default answer is to ask more questions. Ask questions repeatedly till we can find a convincing explanation and get into a state where we are coaching.

For (2) & (4), be in control. Answer well with a genuine intention to bring up the other person on a near identical level of understanding and awareness or help them win.

The second rule of Thumb: Before answering a question, it is essential to make an educated guess of how to answer that question after we have decided to answer.

Typically, a question is NOT single-dimensional but it has anatomy, which includes all of the:

  1. The person asking the question

  2. The timing of the question

  3. The emotion in the question

  4. The environment in question

The answer to a question is usually dependent on all 4.

The person: Who is asking the question? Are they likely to know more than me? Is this a person of power, authority, or someone my peer or subordinate or my child?

If the person is superior to us, we kid ourselves not with the answers. If the person is a subordinate, we can reveal just about what they need to know. Same with peers too. With children, even bluffing is fine. Depending on the person, we can choose to share the right level of details without coming out as ingenuine.

The timing - why this question? What is going on around me? What is the context? Is there a critical business review or performance review coming up? Does this person want a favor from me?

If the question is coming out of nowhere, then something we are unaware of is happening. If the question has relevance to the most recent things happening around you, it is not all that odd that the question pops up.

The emotion: Is it one of control, sorrow, panic, affection or annoyance? Why is the person showing that emotion now? What is going on?

How is the question being asked? Is it being asked with a certain friendliness, or is the emotion in question one of rush, desperation, or anger? If there is a negative emotion coming from a senior, we better answer the question a little later than now.

The Environment : Where is this being asked? In a casual or formal setup?

We can laugh it off in an informal setup, even when a senior asks a question. In a more severe environment, it is critical to answer with the right level of detail and earnestness.

All four data points give a pretty accurate picture of the intent behind the question and how to answer the question.

  1. Detail Vs. Non-detail

  2. More research Vs. top of the head answer

  3. 100% Accuracy Vs. near Accuracy

  4. Framing of the response

Learning to answer or defend questions well puts us in a position of authority. Next time, when answering a question, pause.

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