When answering questions, to a group or to an individual, what should we be aware of?
Just as all of us will be asking questions, so also, we will be answering questions throughout our lives, mostly in small groups. Some of us will be addressing large gatherings. The answers we give could have a major impact on the beliefs and decisions of the listeners, and therefore should be taken seriously.
Answering is both a skill as well as an art. It requires precise articulation, sensitivity, presence of mind, spontaneity and depth of knowledge. But we have to learn this skill by ourselves, through observation, introspection and trial & error. It is not something that anyone is going to teach us.
Let us examine this subject from the point of view of those who ask questions and their expectations so that we are sensitized to their needs.
1. Questioners like to be respected.
The most important expectation that a questioner has is respect for his question. I remember a long time ago I had asked a question at a public forum and the speaker skillfully turned it into a joke. The entire gathering laughed, including me. It was indeed hilarious. But at whose expense? At the cost of the question. The mood changed and the question got diluted. A ridiculed question loses its value. We all have this enormous fear of being mocked in public. When such things happen, the questioner cannot even focus on the answer. His mind will be on how his question was devalued and made fun of. The questioner who was hoping that the answer is going to transform his life will leave with the thought as to why he even asked the question. Humour is indeed mood uplifting but it should be during the middle or at the end of the answer, not by using the question.
2. Questioners don’t like to be questioned.
When asked a question, some speakers ask a counter question. This can really take the questioner aback as he is not ready for it and may not know what to say. The questioner has not come to answer but to get an answer. The tendency then is generally to give the ‘correct’ reply to impress everyone, and the mind keeps groping for one. Questioners are not trained speakers and even if a counter question needs to be asked, it should be simple and easy to answer with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’.
3. Questioners like to be acknowledged.
Another important expectation is being looked at in the eye when our question is being answered, unlike some doctors who keep writing their prescription while answering their patients’ questions. Nothing can be more frustrating! Looking at people while talking is basic courtesy. The questioner should be made to feel as important as the question. The speaker needs to look at the questioner a number of times. One is when he is asking the question, then at least a few times while answering and finally when concluding, with a nod that says, ‘I hope you are satisfied with the answer’. This will make it personal and impactful. When a famous person whom we adore looks in the eye and smiles at us we feel important and privileged. It is a moment that would be cherished for a long long time and shared with everyone. In fact, we are eagerly waiting for a glance from the speaker. It is like a darshan. The answer he gives will not be easily forgotten as it will be etched in memory with that eye contact.
4. Questioners expect help in framing the question.
To expect questioners to frame the perfect question is asking for the impossible. Many struggle with their expression. They have something in their mind but don’t find it easy to articulate. Especially when they have to speak in front of a large audience, phobia creeps in and they are at a loss for words. The mind sometimes goes blank. The audience usually get restless if a questioner mumbles, gets nervous, pauses too long or struggles for words. During such moments questioners expect to be empathized with for their inability to articulate and formulate the question properly. This is the time for the speaker to come to their rescue and salvage their self-image. The questioner will be ever grateful for this gesture. The speaker needs to be compassionate here and help them in restating the question clearly instead of getting impatient and restless along with the rest of the audience. He can do this by asking for clarifications or reformulating the question, since he is more articulate, so that everyone is able to comprehend.
5. Questioners may ask a short question, but they expect a long reply.
A good speaker will have the ability to convert a closed ended question to an open ended one. Not many questioners know the difference between the two and cannot be expected to ask only open-ended questions. A question such as, ‘Are you a vegan?’ can be answered with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’. But a skilled speaker will talk about why he is a vegan and the advantages of being one and elongate the reply, thereby adding value.
The everyday question, ‘How are you?’, usually has the clichéd response ‘fine’. Even this can be expanded to include a recent pleasant experience that made you say fine, which will make it genuine. Even a ‘How was your day?’, can be embellished with a nice incident instead of a flat OK. Answering with enthusiasm enlivens and makes the dialogue meaningful. Enthusiasm can be generated with happy personal life experiences. One should remember a stockpile of such experiences to be used in conversations.
6. Questioners expect their question to be taken very seriously.
The hallmark of a great teacher or speaker is his willingness to answer any question posed to him with equal zeal and enthusiasm, and not judge the question as trivial, inconsequential or below his standard to answer. From the questioners’ point of view his question is important and it has to be viewed as such. This is very evident when Mahatria answers. He never gives a disinterested reply or one-line answers. No question should be answered with one sentence or in monosyllables. It is indirectly telling the questioner that your question is not worth more than a sentence. Every questioner believes that he has asked a very intelligent question in front of everyone. Dismissing his question with one or two sentences will make his question appear insignificant and unimportant. Even if his question was trivial, the speaker should not make it appear so in front of everyone. The question may not be deep, but the answer can be!
7. Questioners like honesty.
Some speakers say: I will get back on this subject and never get back, and here we are waiting and waiting for him to get back. There is a sense of incompleteness as we keep wondering what he would have said. It is best not to make such a statement but even if it has to be said he must ask the audience to remind him later. Either he said it and forgot to get back or said it with no intention of getting back, which shows lack of integrity.
8. Questioners expect that their question is answered first and fully.
It is understandable that speakers have to cater to the entire audience and not just one questioner. But when the speaker, in his desire to cater to everyone begins to enlarge the question to cover a broader area and wanders off the question, the questioner will feel neglected. Every questioner expects that his question is answered fully. Only after the specific question is answered should it be expanded and broadened, so that everyone benefits, and not in the beginning itself.
9. Questioners don’t like to be told that they are not intelligent.
One world famous teacher of the 80’s used to keep repeating: I hope you are getting what I am trying to convey. Though not many did, nobody likes to have their intelligence questioned. Statements such as: I don’t know if you understand what I am saying, or what I am saying may be difficult to grasp or if you don’t understand let me know, sounds very patronizing and condescending and can really put people off.
10. Questioners want focus on themselves.
The context a speaker comes from is absolutely crucial. Mahatria, for instance, comes from the context of transforming the listener, which is the highest context. But I have also seen speakers who speak to impress and display their knowledge. They want to say things that will bring accolades and appreciation to themselves. The focus is on their intelligence and not on the question. But then the answer that emanates from such a context will not be as powerful as the context of transformation. When we speak to impress it will have a different flavor to it than when we speak to give a life-changing perspective.
11. Questioners like to be appreciated.
Some speakers start off by saying: that is a very good question or thank you for asking that question. This will make the questioner happy, which is a good thing to do as his receptivity will increase. But it is equally important to say why it is a good question as the audience may be wondering what was so good about the question. This will make it genuine and not appear that it was said merely for effect.
Answering is both a skill as well as an art. It requires precise articulation, sensitivity, presence of mind, spontaneity and depth of knowledge.
But we have to learn this skill by ourselves, through observation, introspection and trial & error. It is not something that anyone is going to teach us.
12. Questioners want clear-cut answers.
If a speaker gives only politically correct answers, we must distrust him. If a speaker is beating around the bush and never comes to the point, or deviates from the question we might conclude that he does not know the answer and does not want to admit it. If he is too abstract and conceptual it could mean he does not have enough real-life experiences to back up his concepts. If he keeps quoting too many authorities and books and interpreting what they said, then we doubt his practical knowledge.
13. Questioners expect answers that are at their level of maturity and understanding.
Listeners expect actionable knowledge. Abstract answers don’t stick in memory. Real life personal examples and illustrations are ideal. People switch off when they hear jargons, abbreviations, uncommon words and technical language. Pictorial language engages them. I have heard teachers who only speak from their highest experience and absolute standpoints. It does sound profound, but it has no practical value and is not actionable. It only leaves us longing for a similar experience. If our answers are to make an impact, we must also appeal to the imagination rather than only to the intellect and speak from the level of the listeners.
14. Questioners expect suggestions that they can implement at a practical level.
We often notice speakers give suggestions that are unlikely to be implemented, like meditate for one hour thrice a day to a person who doesn’t have the ability to sit for 3 minutes in one place. It would be better to say: start with 3 minutes and increase it by one minute every week. Otherwise he will be a non-starter. Similarly, a suggestion like get up at 4 a.m., can be modified to get up at your usual time and advance it by 15 minutes every 4 days.
Questioners also want to know ‘how’ to implement suggestions. Drop the ego is a common recommendation but how does one go about dropping it?
15. Questioners don’t like to be told what not to do.
We often hear people using the word ‘don’t’ in certain contexts. They may say don’t compare, don’t be greedy, don’t be self- conscious, don’t be jealous, don’t be shy, don’t be egoistic, don’t be afraid, etc. The mind doesn’t like the word ‘don’t’. It sees it as a command, an order, an imposition, a restriction on its freedom. We have been hearing this word from childhood and the child in us resists that word. The ego also gets reactive when it hears ‘don’t’. It would be far more effective to say: be generous, be cooperative, be large-hearted, be compassionate, be kind, praise people, tell the truth, be active. These are positive actionable words which the mind will not resist. However, ‘don’t’ is appropriate in other contexts such as: don’t go to this restaurant or don’t read this book or don’t see this movie.
16. Questioners expect answers based on whether they are process oriented or result oriented.
There are two kinds of questioners. One likes a direct, straightforward, to- the-point, result oriented answer. The other likes the speaker to create an ambience and not dive straight away into the question. Here the speaker has to first prepare the mind of the listener by creating a mood around the subject by telling stories, giving personal anecdotes, adding humor, talking about known people etc., so that a happy atmosphere is created, and the mind is relaxed and receptive. The answer is then given to such a prepared mind. We have to first gauge the kind of person we are talking to and then decide our approach.
When we answer questions, we grow with our answers. It is a two-way street. Both the questioner and the answerer are benefitted. It forces us to think on our feet and teaches us how to deal with different kinds of minds. But the greatest benefit is when answers begin to come from outside of our memory, we start accessing a different kind of intelligence.