Secret to success? Answer the question that’s asked

Business meetings can be evil things – long, aimless, soul-sucking gatherings where little is accomplished yet much is said.

You can point to a number of reasons:

  1. No one made an agenda
  2. Everyone is on their smartphones, checking email
  3. Someone brought donuts

Okay…maybe it’s not the donuts.  But if you pay attention, you’ll notice a pattern as people talk (and talk and talk).

No one answers any questions.

Oh sure, when someone asks a question, another person inevitably says something that’s supposed to sound like an answer.  There may be big words, emphatic gestures, perhaps even an attempt to gain buy-in (“Right?”).  Rarely, though, is the answer one that matches the question.

And yet…every so often…a hero emerges.

Someone who heard the question, considered it, and…miracle of miracles…ANSWERED IT ON ITS OWN MERITS.

This person looks like a freakin’ genius.


Why would something as simple as answering a question matter?

  • It shows you listened: By addressing the concerns of the asker, you demonstrated an ability to pay attention rather than sing that little song to yourself in your head.  Listening = good.  Singing SexyBack in your head = bad.
  • It shows you care: Okay, it doesn’t make you a saint or anything, but addressing someone else’s concerns rather than advancing your own agenda is perceived as teamwork, leadership, and/or smartness.
  • It moves the meeting forward: Think about the circular nature of most business meetings. Sally says a general statement about how a process doesn’t work, Johnny asks what specifically isn’t working, Ted launches into a monologue about the state of technology in Western Europe…and then Sally mentions how the process doesn’t work.  If Sally or Ted would have said, “Well, Johnny, when you launch the workflow, it goes to the wrong person,” there’s a good chance the group could move on to solutions.  Instead, Ted got on a soapbox and Sally is rending her garments, keening about the process. [Ed. Note: Drama much?]

So how do you make sure you answer the question asked?

  • Pay attention: I know, right?  Be more obvious.  But it’s the truth.  And if there is an awkward pause because you suspect someone asked you a question and you weren’t listening, admit it and ask them to repeat the question.
  • Rephrase: Oldie but goodie.  This doesn’t mean you REPEAT the question, especially if it’s short (“so, you’re asking me if I ski?”). If the question is complex or not well-asked (it happens), take a moment to say something like, “I want to be sure I understand what you’re asking..”
  • Keep it short: The longer you talk, the more likely you are to get off on tangents.  Stick to the point and make yourself shut up once you’ve addressed the matter at hand.
  • Confirm: After you finish answering the question, ask, “Did that answer your question?” That way, the asker can get additional clarity without having to interrupt the next person who starts talking.

I know.  It’s pretty obvious.  But as we all know, common sense isn’t always common practice.

Next time you’re in a meeting, pay attention to the questions asked and the answers given.  Chances are, the person who actually answers the question that is asked is on the fast track to success.

Have a question you want answered? Ask it in the comments!

2 thoughts on “Secret to success? Answer the question that’s asked

  1. Very interesting and true representation of corporate (non)happenings! As an extension of the concept of answering a question straight, there is also the idea of having a definitive purpose for the meeting itself. If the meeting itself is called as a result of some senior executive’s desire to pass time, then what happens in the meeting, with or without questions being asked, is largely irrelevant. Much of the non-answering attitude comes from the current craze of social media chatter, where everyone is talking and no one is listening! For some light-hearted reading on corporate culture, please check out my musings at

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