Answering a Question With a Question
Answering a question with a question expands a conversation or discussion by sending the question back to the questioner for further exploration. In essence, the question asked bounces back to the questioner for more elaboration.
When used properly, these “reverse questions” are not a defense to prevent answering a question, but rather a question that asks the other party to tell you more.
In order to clarify and understand more deeply what is being asked, the best leaders try hard to slow down and occasionally ask a question in reply.
Consider a few examples:
“That’s a great question. What’s your answer to it?”
“You make an excellent point. How did you come to that conclusion?”
“You’ve asked me an interesting question. Before I answer, please tell me why you asked me that?”
“I need to know a little bit more before I answer your question…”
“I never thought of that. What made you think of it?”
We are taught from an early age that the correct response to any question is an answer. It really doesn’t matter what the question is; the expectation is that you will provide a definitive reply.
When leaders defy this script and ask a question instead, everything changes. The conversation opens like a flower with more questions and answers to follow. Enhanced understanding is the result.
In a somewhat related fashion, reverse statements throw the question back through observation or request. They leave the question unanswered, at least for a moment.
They are often followed by brief silence before the parties explore why the question requires more than a straightforward answer:
“I’ve always wanted to ask you that same question.”
“That is exactly the question we need to answer.”
“I can’t wait to hear how others answer that question.”
“That is such an important question.”
“What a great question!”
The key is not to fill the silence with another question or statement too quickly. Skillful leaders let the response linger before engaging the question or statement further.
When asked with honest curiosity, reverse questions and statements are seen as natural reactions and allow both parties to expand on the original question. If asked mechanically or too often, such questions can be perceived as petulant, annoying, and obnoxious. (When someone asks you what time it is, please don’t reply with “What time would you like it to be?”)
Good leaders are ready with a question, as well as an answer to any query they receive. Sometimes, answering a question with a question is the best way to create real understanding. What is your question?