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AFAS: Ask First, Answer Second

By steve - Posted on 28 September 2009

People who think they are smart tend to think that when they are asked a question, they should be able to immediately provide an answer.

Not so.

The problem with that is, because we are human, we tend to misunderstand the question and provide either the wrong answer to the right question or the right answer to the wrong question.

If you really want people to think you are smart, and you want to answer the actual question, first, ask some good questions. That way, you know what the question really is about, only then should you start answering the question. AFAS: Ask First, Answer Second.

Won't that annoy the person asking the question? Yeah, sometimes, but I'd rather answer the right question correctly than any of the alternatives.

There are many reasons why people ask the wrong question, but some of the ones I've run into include:
* They are trying to solve the wrong problem
* They don't understand the problem correctly
* They haven't really thought about it
* They only know a little, but don't want you to know that
* They've been working on the problem so long, they've lost track of the real issue

So, when someone comes and asks you a very specific question, what do you do?

Here's what I do:
* I'll usually answer the question directly, but only after asking a few questions. If that isn't appropriate up front (the person seems upset or frantic), I'll often answer the question, but follow up with some "well, that's probably the answer to your question, but what are you trying to do that for?"
* When possible, ask a few questions: what are you trying to accomplish? why?
* A lot of the time, I'll find they have talked themselves into a solution that doesn't mesh with how things are supposed to work. I'll gently guide them back to the standard way of doing things or a better approach.

For instance, let's say, Bob, an executive, is trying to organize his personal contact list in Outlook. He figures the best way to do this is to create a bunch of other Contact folders and drag his various "categories" of contacts to each of them. The problem is, these may or may not sync correctly to his smartphone because of limitations on the back end.

Bob walks up and pokes his head in my office and his question is, "how do I create new contact folders in Outlook". My answer would be, "that's pretty easy, just open Outlook and open the folder view, then scroll to the folder...", etc. But then before I lost his attention, I would ask, "why do you need multiple contact folders, we usually want just the one?" This gives Bob a chance to explain to me that he is reorganizing his personal contacts and... Well, Bob doesn't realize, any contacts in these other folders aren't going to pop up automatically any more when Outlook tries to address them OR he doesn't realize... etc.

So, I can give him a better solution--why don't you use categories in Outlook contacts to group different contacts by type?

The key is to:
* determine the real purpose
* verify your understanding
* answer the right question

You'll be much more helpful, more successful and people will think you are smart--a win/win.

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