Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 15, Issue 32;   August 12, 2015: When the Answer Isn't the Point: I

When the Answer Isn't the Point: I

by

When we ask each other questions, the answers aren't always what we seek. Sometimes the behavior of the respondent is what matters. Here are some techniques questioners use when the answer to the question wasn't the point of asking.
An investigator from the U.S. Air Force Office of Special Investigations interviews a witness

Special Agent Patrick Allen, Air Force Office of Special Investigations, interviews a witness as part of an investigation at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, North Carolina. The AFOSI provides professional investigative service to commanders of all Air Force activities by identifying, investigating, and neutralizing criminal, terrorist and espionage threats to Air Force and Department of Defense personnel and resources. One can surmise that investigators often use questions to elicit information that they derive from the behavior of the witnesses, in addition to the answers the witnesses provide. U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman John Nieves Camacho.

Not everything is what it seems. Take questions, for example. When we ask questions, we're usually seeking answers. Sometimes, though, the questioner already knows the answer. A teacher's question might guide a student to a discovery. A prosecutor's question might induce a witness to reveal inconsistencies in prior testimony. Even when we know the answer, the answer might still be the point of the question.

But there are times when the asker is more interested in the behavior of the person questioned than in the answer he or she provides. At work, we don't usually think about behavioral assessment, because we do it so intuitively. But what if someone asks a question with behavioral assessment in mind?

Here is Part I of a collection of suggestions to help you prepare for such questions. I refer to the Asker as "Alpha" and the Target of the question as "Tango." By a coin flip, I determined that Alpha is female and Tango male.

If the question is ambiguous…
Does Tango answer directly, making assumptions to resolve the ambiguities? Or does he notice the ambiguities and ask for clarification?
Alpha could be trying to determine whether Tango has the nerve to request clarification. But if Tango is too careful — if he seems wary — Alpha might interpret that wariness as an attempt at concealment. Does Tango know how to ask for clarification without seeming wary?
If the question uses arcane vocabulary…
When Tango doesn't understand the question, does he try to conceal his confusion, or does he admit to confusion, and ask for clarification?
Admitting confusion or ignorance can be difficult, especially in settings in which knowledge and sophistication are valued. Is Tango confident enough in his abilities that he can acknowledge his limitations?
If it contains erroneous assumptions…
When There are times when the asker
of a question is more interested
in the behavior of the person
questioned than in the answer
he or she provides
the question presupposes something Tango knows is false, does he offer a correction? Or does he deliver a tactful response that conceals whether or not he noticed the error?
If Tango chooses to conceal that he noticed the error, this ploy tells Alpha about his acting (or poker-playing) abilities. If he addresses the error, his response shows her how skillfully he can present the correction without offending her. This technique is also useful for determining Tango's level of expertise. Can he spot the error? Is he confident enough to offer a correction?
If it's couched in inappropriate language…
If Alpha uses inappropriate language, or displays bigotry, does Tango let it slide, or does he object? How strong or how direct is his objection?
Does Tango exhibit nerve and integrity? If Alpha is a superior, does Tango let that cow him? If Tango objects, how deftly does he manage it?

We'll continue next time with examples of tactics that are a little more hostile. Next in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: When the Answer Isn't the Point: II  Next Issue

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenYhfoQSCzbmhYqgFfner@ChacXsGCCWyGuFAWxHwkoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Workplace Politics:

Balancing on a knife edgeKnife-Edge Performers
Some employees deliver performance episodically, while some deliver steady, but barely adequate performance. Either way, they keep their managers drained and anxious, on the "knife edge" of terminating them. How can you detect knife-edge performers, and what can you do about them?
Former U.S. Secretary of State Colin PowellDevious Political Tactics: A Field Manual
Some practitioners of workplace politics use an assortment of devious tactics to accomplish their ends. Since most of us operate in a fairly straightforward manner, the devious among us gain unfair advantage. Here are some of their techniques, and some suggestions for effective responses.
"Taking an observation at the pole."The Risky Role of Hands-On Project Manager
The hands-on project manager manages the project and performs some of the work, too. There are lots of excellent hands-on project managers, but the job is inherently risky, and it's loaded with potential conflicts of interest.
A sea otter and pupPower, Authority, and Influence: A Systems View
Power, Authority, and Influence are often understood as personal attributes. To fully grasp how they function in organizations, we must adopt a systems view.
Rosemary Woods, President Richard Nixon's personal secretaryYet More Obstacles to Finding the Reasons Why
Part III of our catalog of obstacles encountered in retrospectives, when we try to uncover why we succeeded — or failed.

See also Workplace Politics and Effective Communication at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

The United States curling team at the Torino Olympics in 2006Coming November 22: Motivation and the Reification Error
We commit the reification error when we assume, incorrectly, that we can treat abstract constructs as if they were real objects. It's a common error when we try to motivate people. Available here and by RSS on November 22.
A human marionetteAnd on November 29: Manipulators Beware
When manipulators try to manipulate others, they're attempting to unscrupulously influence their targets to decide or act in some way the manipulators prefer. But some targets manage to outwit their manipulators. Available here and by RSS on November 29.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrentaRExnfAuZpEtMXGner@ChacCNsekPwhHQdTLSMboCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

Ten Project Management Fallacies: The Power of Avoiding Hazards
Most Ten Project Management Fallaciesof what we know about managing projects is useful and effective, but some of what we know "just ain't so." Identifying the fallacies of project management reduces risk and enhances your ability to complete projects successfully. Even more important, avoiding these traps can demonstrate the value and power of the project management profession in general, and your personal capabilities in particular. In this program we describe ten of these beliefs. There are almost certainly many more, but these ten are a good start. We'll explore the situations where these fallacies are most likely to expose projects to risk, and suggest techniques for avoiding them. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
Please donate!The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
21st Century Business TravelAre your business trips long chains of stressful misadventures? Have you ever wondered if there's a better way to get from here to there relaxed and refreshed? First class travel is one alternative, but you can do almost as well (without the high costs) if you know the tricks of the masters of 21st-century e-enabled business travel…

Beware any resource that speaks of "winning" at workplace politics or "defeating" it. You can benefit or not, but there is no score-keeping, and it isn't a game.

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics!
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
My free weekly email newsletter gives concrete tips and suggestions for dealing with the challenging but everyday situations we all face.
A Tip A DayA Tip a Day arrives by email, or by RSS Feed, each business day. It's 20 to 30 words at most, and gives you a new perspective on the hassles and rewards of work life. Most tips also contain links to related articles. Free!
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.