I am constantly amazed by people who never answer the question they were asked. The recent political debates have put a spotlight on this problem spurring me to write a second blog on the topic. But it goes far deeper than just the political debates. People all too often in business and elsewhere give you the information they want to convey even if it has no relation to the question they were asked. It takes discipline to answer the question but that discipline can create huge rewards. Businessmen and businesswomen who subscribe to the discipline are usually more successful in getting their job done well and achieving promotions. I believe it would help political candidates but I’m convinced that no one currently on the scene is willing to adopt the discipline; just wishful thinking on my part.

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received came from the principal at the elementary school my daughters attended in Michigan. The principal was speaking to the parents one night and advised the parents that when our children asked us questions about sex we should listen carefully to the question and answer only the question asked. She advised us not to try and avoid the question but rather to deal directly with it. She also advised us not to give phony answers or try to gloss over the question. Importantly we were advised not to use the question to launch a dissertation on the facts of life. “Answer the question” she said. “Answer the question directly and honestly. But offer no additional information”. This next point was critical to the process. “If your child wants additional information they will ask a second question”.

The key: answer the question you were asked. In most cases that will fully satisfy the child.

The advice made such an impression on me I decided to incorporate it into my business life. The discipline guided my actions in all meetings whether small or large, whether internal or with clients. I answered the question I was asked.

I discovered the discipline improved the efficiency of the meetings. We stayed on topic and did not stray off into unrelated areas. I know a lot of meeting attendees find themselves at times wondering “how did we get onto this subject”? Many times it was simply a lack of discipline in answering the initial question. The discipline will also improve people’s response to you. They know if they ask you a question they will receive a relevant response.

Calvin Coolidge was the 30th President of the United States and one of his nicknames was “Silent Cal”. He was known for being taciturn. One of my favorite stories about him: On returning from church one Sunday Coolidge was asked what the minister had preached. Coolidge replied “Sin”.
“And what did he say about sin” the person asked?
“He was against it” Coolidge replied.

Coolidge should be a role model for us in business. Listen to the question and answer the question directly and succinctly. A well asked question is one half of the way to wisdom, and a smart and relevant response is the other half.