Do You Ignore the Question?


A recent discussion left me pondering this for myself, and for you.

How often do we give an answer that has little to do with the question?

Here is what I observe watching discussions, including my own. People often hear a different question than was asked. Or derive a different meaning from the question that is sometimes false.

For instance…

You: “How long will it take me to get downtown from here?”

Me: “Oh, not long. And the area has great bus service that has helped traffic. I especially like the open air trolley on pretty days.”

Okay, there was some useful information in the answer. But you still don’t know if it will take 10 minutes or an hour or even longer in rush hour. Now you have to ask again. Argggh.

House Buyer: “This house is a strange color to me.  How much does it cost to get a house like this painted?”

Real Estate Agent: “This house is an exception in this neighborhood as most of the other houses are brick, including two I want you to see that are just around the corner. These brick houses are also newer and just listed on the market.  I just love them and I think you will too.”

Hmmm.  Sounds like someone either can’t listen or has an agenda to sell a different house than this one. The buyer may love this house, is ready to make an offer, and is asking to determine his overall cost for updating it. Did the answer help this sale move forward? Probably not.


Now I want to be clear that there are times answers are provided trying to be helpful and in anticipation of the next question. And there are times we perceive the questioner does not know what to ask and we are trying to get them the information they seem to be seeking.  This can even be a useful and efficient way to carry on a conversation.  Human nature includes anticipation in our communication normally.

Little Girl Covering Her EarsI also see people that don’t want to answer a question and thus just answer with what they want to say (see any recent political debate or talk radio discussion).  These are cases of people that listen very carefully to the question and made a conscious decision on what to say or not say.  

Of course, sales people have a reputation (earned or not) for pushing the product through “supposed” answers. Some listen, some don’t.

But outside of these cases, there are times we just don’t listen well, regardless of our intentions. Perhaps we just did not pause to consider the question. Maybe we did not understand it and thought we did. Maybe we had something else on our mind instead of listening.


One of my customer service pet peeves are canned answers that don’t answer my question. With technical projects, our team is very good. Before calling for support, we’ve typically ruled out not only the basics but have done our own research and even testing.  By the time we call support, we are ready for real answers.

What usually happens?  We get canned answers that are light years behind our efforts and information. And often our efforts to point this out are ignored, even when we explicitly describe our work to-date. Now, I realize that many front line support people are following their rules and recipe. But the companies that impress us also listen and respond appropriately and avoid creating an endless circle of useless answers.


The point of all this is something you already know but may not always do: Take time to listen and consider questions before answering. 

One of the most frustrating things for many people is to ask a series of very specific questions and get long answers that still don’t answer the question. It starts to feel like resistance, even if it is just careless listening of the questions. There are even some people that will stop asking and just give up on the topic. That is not always a good thing especially if the person is a potential customer, current customer, colleague, vendor, or family member.

So before you answer, listen well my friends. Think. Then answer. This will help you communicate to succeed.


About the Author

Glenn S. Phillips works with leaders who want to leverage technology and understand risks within. An author and blogger, Glenn is often quoted in national media, plays a really ugly tuba (it even has a bullet hole) and is a fan of dark chocolate and great puns.