The "non-answer" ... it's mostly about the questions you ask.

If you are, or have ever been in sales, you will know how important questions are. They are at the heart of the selling process - Understanding the situation, understanding customer's needs, and for identifying opportunities. The type of questions you ask will advance the conversation or bring it to a crushing halt; when I say this, I don't necessarily mean everyone will stop talking... I mean something far worse.

My experience is that people do not want to leave the perception that they do not know the answer; I most definitely include myself and when needed I can be a master at the "non-answer".

There are generally two types of questions you can ask:

  1. Those questions that elicit a "yes" or "no" answer, and commonly called closed-ended questions*. These questions mechanically bring the conversation to a natural conclusion and don't develop any conversation. Just a series of yes or no answers. Yes or no will always be an easy and knowable answer. 
  2. Those questions that elicit an explanatory answer and commonly known as open-ended questions*. These questions bring with them a transfer of information, facts, opinion and general thoughts. It is here where you can gain the most information regarding a situation and the answers to help formulate understanding - As well as decisions for the next course of action. It is here that the non-answer can, and usually comes alive.

What do I mean by the non-answer? You know those meetings or conversations that involve a dialogue with questions and discussions and in the end you are no further ahead regarding tangible answers to your questions or problems - That is the description of a non-answer situation. No doubt there are situations where answers are deliberately withheld, but I am not referring to those. Rather to those situations where, even with the best of attentions, the answers never come to light. Some reasons immediately spring to mind - 

The correct question simply does not get asked and never leads to the answer, or changing a person's way of thinking.

  • This is actually a difficult situation to work through as you build your questions from a personal foundation of knowledge and experiences; you may not have the capability to ask the correct question. This is why it is important to have a number of people with diverse backgrounds helping you get to the answers. We have all been in meetings or situations where you figuratively see the light bulb go on and the person says, "Oh, now I understand what you are asking".

There is a perceived obligation to say something and everything... sometimes answering the question and sometimes not.

  • There are those who think fast, talk fast, and share it all. It is here that the term "baffle them with bullshit" originated I believe. More often than not, the answer is somewhere in the grand story that has been presented. The solution here may be as much about subtle people management and facilitation, as it is with asking the correct question. My experience here is using a series of closed ended questions can drive focus or simply asking, "could you summarize your answer to the question in three bullet points?" 

A person, for a variety of human reasons, does not want to admit they do not know the answer.

  • The manifestation of this can look very much like the earlier points, but unlike their primary drivers of not understanding the question, this is driven more by human emotions such as pride, fear, and so on. This is a very difficult situation to detect (particularly if someone is a master at it), and will not be solved by a question... it will be solved by creating an environment where - 1) Knowing how to find the answer is much more important than having it, 2) Saying you don't have the answer is a positive quality, and 3) understanding that action can not be driven from "non answers".

So remember, "Confidence never comes from having all the answers; it comes from being open to all of the questions." And also remember, for those of us with adult ADHD, those long, rambling non-answers are killers.


* Open and Closed ended questions have been referred to by many different names over the decades and the subject of countless books on sales.