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The First Answer is not necessarily THE BEST answer

May 2, 2016

What do I mean?  This is one enduring lessen I learned at work mid-way through my career.  I was leading a team that answered inquiries to our CEO from customers, employees, shareholders and citizens.  The answers often needed to come from subject matter experts within the company, most of whom were in other states or other countries.  My team and I needed to ask the questions, take the answers we received and respond to the original person.  I learned quickly that the experts were sometimes hard to find and were often busy doing other things.  So we would get AN answer, but not necessarily the best answer.

Work – and life –  is a continual quest to complete action, to get something dPicture1one.  Often, we turn to others for an answer we seek.  We get those answers.  But my experience is that much of the time, the answer is not the best answer to the question.  It is simply one of many answers.  Understanding why that happens, how we might be complicit in the whole situation and how to do better at getting the right answer are great skills to have.  Here are my thoughts.

Why might you not get the best answer the first time?

Reason #1.  The other person is well-meaning but gives a sub-par answer

When you ask someone a question, they want to be helpful.  So, by giving you an answer, they feel a sense of helping you out.  It makes them feel good.  Sometimes, they think they know the answer, so they give it to you.  The other person doesn’t question their own “knowledge”.

There could be other reasons they do this , including:

  • They did not understand your question
  • They are hoping for a quid pro quo.  “I help you out this time, you’ll help me out the next time”
  • They need to support their ego.  They believe you think they are more of an expert.  Therefore,  giving an answer saves face.

#2 The other person deliberately gives you a wrong/directionally incorrect answer (consciously or not)

I’ll turn to Calvin and Hobbes to give me some help illustrating my point.

Why would someone do that?  They really don’t know the answer but don’t want to admit it.  

The other person wants to get rid of you.  Yep, that really does happen sometimes . . .   

Perhaps the other person has a personal agenda they want to make clear, like this:


Or it may be that the other person has a set of beliefs contrary to accuracy.  It could be that you are asking someone about a subject that they really are wrong about, but think they are right.  People have their own sets of experiences, their own viewpoints about controversial subjects (religion and politics come to mind) or personal beliefs that cloud their judgement of reality.  Most of us do not employ the scientific method before getting a set of beliefs.

#3 You are the problem.

Sometimes, we just want an answer and we’ll gladly take the first one.  You figure if someones tells you something, you are now exonerated from “decision making”.  That might be expedient, but not necessarily mean we get the right answer.  (Ever asked someone, “should I buy this”?)

Here are some other ways you can be the problem:

The question you asked is not really the one you meant to ask.  You just were not clear enough or had not thought through the question you really needed to ask.
You get an answer that backs your position or seems plausible and you take it.  In this case, you probably weren’t really asking the question with any sincerity.
You are in a hurry.  Ask a question, get an answer, move on to the next task.
You interpret their answer in a way that is not fully correct.

How can you avoid settling for the first answer that’s not the right answer?

First you need to understand your own motives.  Why are you really asking that question?  Why are you asking that particular person? What are you trying to get out of the answer?  How important is the answer to you?

Second, to use one of my favorite phrases, “consider the source”.  Who is telling you the answer?  What is their motivation?  Why might they be giving you that answer?

Half Truths

Third, Think.  Take a moment to really consider what you asked and what you have been told.  Is it plausible?  What is your gut telling you?  Can you ask someone else to get corroboration or a different viewpoint?

In the end, it is up to you.  Do you really want the BEST answer?

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