People are good at answering questions without actually answering the question. Usually they are just being slack: they change the question to an easier question and answer it. Or, they avoid the question for good reason. Either way, don’t let that happen with you. Before you ask your question, work out precisely what you want to know. That question becomes your mast. Cling to it. Make sure it’s answered.
You: ‘Will you be available next Thursday?’
Him: ‘I don’t know yet.’
You: ‘When will you know?’
Him: ‘I don’t know.’
You: ‘What information do you require in order to know?’
And so on.
When you politely, but methodically, plug away with your question, eventually the person twigs that you do want your question answered. And hopefully they then answer it.
Of course, don’t make it an inquisition. Remain polite. Assume the person wants to assist. You’re not interrogating them with your questions, you’re guiding them. By persistently asking the right questions you can help them help you.
The key: ask your question and cling to it. Your sole intent is to have your question answered.
You: ‘How much precisely will this plan cost me, each year?’
Financial planner: ‘$1,000 plus 2% of the investment.’
You: ‘Precisely, how much will I be paying you each year?’
Financial planner: ‘It’s hard to estimate. We don’t know yet how the investment will perform.’
You: ‘I need to know how much I’ll be paying you. How much will it be?’
Financial Planner: ‘It’s too hard to say. The percentage changes, depending.’
You: ‘Give me a list of the possibilities, please.’
Financial planner: ‘I don’t have a list.’
You: ‘I’ll need one. I need to feel comfortable about how much I might be paying you. And please, list all the other possible charges and fees that I might end up paying. Please make it easy for me to understand. Thank you.’
Financial planner: ‘The costs will be the same as what my other clients pay.’
You: ‘When can I expect the list, please?’
(Of course, you would ask a financial planner many more questions than that, but you get the idea.)
Be diplomatic while asking questions. Listen to the other person’s response and modify your questions accordingly, yet always have your intent in mind. The point is, when you ask a question of someone, don’t allow yourself to be fobbed off. Get the answer you seek, or be fully satisfied as to why you can’t have a firm answer.
Sometimes a person will not know the answer to your question. A car mechanic has to first diagnose the problem before being able to tell you how much it will cost to fix your car, and when you can get it back. Ask to be kept informed so that you can make decisions along the way.
You: ‘Bill, I’ve given you six weeks notice to move out. Four weeks have passed. When do you expect to be gone?’
Bill: ‘I don’t know yet. I haven’t been able to find a place.’
You: ‘If you haven’t found a place when the six weeks are up, what will you do?’
Bill: ‘I don’t know.’
You: ‘Then work it out, please. What will you do?’
Bill: ‘How would I know? If I can’t find a place, how will I know?’
You: ‘Then you need to plan for that, now. What are the possibilities?’
You: ‘Let’s list the possibilities together, now.’ This can establish that your place isn’t an option, and the possibilities you both come up with will help Bill make a plan. Then summarise the situation:
You: ‘Bill, if you haven’t found a place in six weeks you are going to . . . Is that correct?’
Keep the list to ensure you have proof of the understanding. Give Bill a copy if you like!
Example 3. Carol hasn’t been doing her chores and you want to speak with her about it. You wait for a time when she doesn’t seem busy.
You: ‘Carol, I want to talk to you about something.’
Carol: ‘Not right now, I’m going out shortly.’
You: ‘Fine. When would suit?’ (This is fair. You can’t expect people to comply with what suits you when it suits you. Being assertive doesn’t mean being bossy or selfish.)
Carol: ‘How about tomorrow? I’ll let you know.’
You: ‘Fine. But let’s set a time for tomorrow.’
Carol: ‘I can’t. I don’t know when I’ll be home. Bye.’
Two days pass. You again find a time when Carol doesn’t appear busy.
You: ‘Carol, I want to talk to you about something.’
Carol: ‘Not now, I’m busy.’
You: ‘Now please. I asked to speak with you two days ago and you have had those two days to get back to me. Now is a good time, thank you.’
Carol: ‘I forgot.’
You: ‘It’s about . . .’
Carol: ‘I just told you, I’m busy.’
You: ‘You may be busy, but you’ve had two days to get back to me. I want to talk about . . .’ (Good, you didn’t ask her to explain why she is busy, and you didn’t try to prove to her that she is not busy – that would have ended up in a debate and raised her hackles – instead you kept to your intent, to have a talk with her.
Carol: ‘Look, I’m just about to go out. I can’t speak with you now.’
You: ‘Then let’s make a time. Say, 8 o’clock tonight?’ You can’t hog-tie her, and perhaps she truly is busy. Concede again. You won’t achieve much by forcing her to talk with you, but you have stated your intention and now she knows you mean business.
Carol: ‘Eight o’clock is fine.’
You: ‘Do you want to check your diary to be sure you can make it?’
Carol: ‘What’s this talk about?’
You: ‘You said you are busy, so let’s not discuss it now. Are you certain eight o’clock is alright?’ (Good. If you tell her what it’s about now you will have a rushed discussion about the matter, and then she will rush off with the problem unresolved. And she won’t bother keeping the appointment, thinking that the matter has been discussed.)
Carol: ‘Eight o’clock is fine. But what is this about?’
You: ‘See you at eight.’
If Carol fails to make the appointment, persist in the same vein. Be calm and methodical, because the alternative (a rushed and heated discussion) won’t satisfy your requirements.
You: ‘Thanks for agreeing to talk with me, Carol. You haven’t been cleaning the floors like you agreed to do. What would need to happen for you to clean them on time from now on?’ (Good. Instead of dwelling on the past, or insisting that she do them in future, you are searching for a way to fix the problem.)
Carol: ‘I forgot.’
You: ‘I understand. What would need to happen for you to clean the floors on time from now on?’ (Good, you have acknowledged her excuse and stuck to your intent. You are clinging to the mast.)
Carol: ‘I don’t know. I’ll do it. I’ll clean the floors.’
You: ‘What changes will you be making to ensure you clean the floors on time?’
Carol: ‘Are you my boss or something?’
You: ‘I’d just like to know what plan you will put in place to ensure the floors aren’t forgotten again.’ (Good, you’re sticking with your intent. You’re clinging to the mast.)
Carol: (getting grumpy) ‘I’ll remember to do it.’
You could keep persisting until you get a firm plan, but sometimes it’s best to accept a promise. Having this chat might be enough to prompt her. If she doesn’t clean the floors you can begin the process again.
To keep telling her to do the chores would be nagging. To keep arranging with her a time to solve the problem together is persistence.
Q. ‘Sometimes the person doesn’t know the answer. What do we do then?’
‘What information you require in order to be able to answer my question?’
‘What can we both do to assist you find the answer?’
‘I know you don’t know, but if you were to guess, what do you think the answer might be?’