The Power of Questions and Answers in Business

By: Marc Mathies, Executive Director of Digital Coupon Product, Valassis Digital
Published Friday, Jan 19, 2018

The Power of Questions and Answers in Business

Simple fact: children ask tons of questions. You may recall, when you were a child, frequently asking grownups about things you didn’t understand or found intriguing. Or, you may have asked simply because you wanted interpersonal engagement. But do you recall how adults around you responded? Did you feel they listened?

If you are a parent now, how do you respond to your child’s questions? Do you answer with vagaries, nonsensical statements or other evasive tactics? Is there even time in your schedule to answer every question and does it really matter if you ignore the questions and hope they just go away?

The fact is that it does matter. Research has proven that a child’s “ability to ask questions to gather needed information constitutes an efficient mechanism for cognitive development.”1 This volley of questions and answers is the primary method of how children add to their knowledge and is a means to inch closer to adulthood. But the content of the answers is also important. A National Institute of Health study explains that, “children must receive informative answers to their questions if they are able to be of use to cognitive development.” 1

Now, there is no research that proves that every question from a child must be answered. As a parent of three inquisitive children, I cannot advocate attempting to do so. The mental health of the parent has to come ahead of answer-giving. So, let’s just accept the fact that questions and answers play an important role in childhood development and not worry if we (or our parents) have done a good job of parenting.

You may be wondering, “why all the talk about childhood behavior? What does it have to do with business?” Well, I suggest that questions and answers are as important in our professional lives as they were in our early development.

I learned very early in my career that answers could be traded as a commodity to improve one’s status in an organization. I also observed the most successful people I encountered were very good at asking relevant questions. They seemed to be able to turn the question and the answer into action. Therefore, if you can find a way to provide quick and helpful answers to the right people, you’ve landed on a potent recipe for driving business forward.

In my estimation, there is nothing more powerful in an organization than the ability to ask questions and receive quick, accurate answers. Organizations (and the people within them) that can do this well will see positive impact on revenue, cost suppression and employee retention. On the flip side, an organization can be crippled if questions are left unanswered, answered poorly or if answers come too late.

It’s important to note that answering questions is not always easy within an organization. At first look, some of them may seem irrelevant, unnecessary, tedious, redundant or not worth the time. Others may appear simply unanswerable. But all questions should be answered in a timely and accurate fashion in order for a company to move forward – much the way a child grows into adulthood.

Even though the comparison of children and business may seem unusual, there’s an important lesson in it for those in the business world: you can help yourself and your company succeed by asking smart questions and answering those asked of you. If you can’t answer immediately, promise to follow up with an answer and do so.

I’ll leave you with 15 rules for answering questions in business:

  1. Never leave a colleague hanging with a question – even when there is no answer.
  2. Understand that all questions, if unanswered, have the potential to cause harm to a business, no matter how small they seem.
  3. Take pride in being a source for answers – allow it to help define you professionally.
  4. Be concise and definitive in your answers.
  5. Contemplate why the question is being asked.
  6. Never judge somebody for asking a question.
  7. Anticipate questions as possible, and have prepared answers.
  8. In a meeting, never leave an air-gap after a question is asked. Fill it with an answer or a promise to find one.
  9. Never answer a question with the intent to make yourself seem smarter.
  10. Prioritize email responses that contain questions.
  11. Coordinate with team members so that the group is answering questions in one voice.
  12. Never answer in an attempt to shut down further communication.
  13. Never be evasive or elusive with an answer.
  14. Answer all questions in a way that could be understood by a fifth-grader.
  15. Befriend other answer-providers and people that ask good questions.

Source: 1.