Some questions are difficult to answer for solidly legitimate reasons. Examples: you personally don't know the answer, or the answer is unknown to Humankind, or mathematicians have proven that the question is unanswerable [Castelvecchi 2015]. But other questions are unanswerable because they're poorly posed. They're ambiguous, or self-contradictory, or they contain misstatements of fact, or they contain false presuppositions, or any of numerous other issues.
Yet, sometimes we're required to respond to questions we can't answer as posed. The setting or situation can seem to leave no other choice. Or the questioner demands a response. But responding to a question you can't answer by initiating a dialog to clarify the question — no matter how politely and respectfully — can be a bad idea.
So you can't answer the question, and asking a clarifying question is risky. What then?
Let's first survey the risks associated with asking clarifying questions. In what follows I'll use the name Phillip for the Poser of the unanswerable question, and the name Rachel for the Respondent.
- A clarifying question can seem to be criticism
- Unintended criticism is the most significant risk associated with asking clarifying questions. Phillip (the "poser") might interpret the clarifying question as a criticism of his actions, including his motives for asking, his ability to pose a question on this subject, or his ability to pose a question on any subject.
- These risks are Some questions are difficult to answer
for solidly legitimate reasons: you don't
know the answer, or maybe nobody doeselevated if Phillip and Rachel (the "respondent") have a history of rivalry or toxic conflict. In that context, confirmation bias can lead Phillip to perceive Rachel's clarifying question as yet another example of their ongoing conflict.
- The Respondent can seem to be reluctant to answer
- Asking clarifying questions can seem to be a tactic Rachel is using to protect herself or someone else. Phillip or others within earshot might assume that Rachel has something to hide. They might suspect that she's hiding her own ignorance, or stalling for time while she composes a more substantive response. Or she might be stalling for time while she composes a lie. Or she might be hiding a past error or transgression, on her own part or on the part of others.
- If Phillip attributes any such motives to Rachel as she asks her clarifying question, he's more likely to escalate tensions than he is to clarify his question. These risks are elevated if Rachel has used the clarification tactic frequently in the recent past.
Understanding these risks helps us formulate safer responses to unanswerable questions. Here are four example response strategies.
- Take your best shot and expect to be corrected
- Rachel can consider Phillip's question, make her best interpretation, and give her best answer. If Phillip is messing with her, she would do well to expect to be messed with still more. If Phillip is confused himself, then Rachel's best answer will at least do no harm.
- Taking your best shot isn't the option of last resort. Nor is it particularly clever. But it does allow you to focus all thought on the content of your response. It's a good choice if your questioner is hostile and powerful, or if you're feeling stressed or overmatched.
- Ask for more time
- Some questions are premature in the presentation context. That is, Rachel will be providing a response later in her presentation. In that case, when Phillip poses his premature question, Rachel can say, "I'll be getting to that in a few minutes, is that OK?" Most questioners will agree to wait, but if Phillip doesn't want to wait, and if he is politically powerful enough, Rachel might need to skip ahead. If the mood is light enough, though, Rachel can respond with, "You've been reading my mind again Phillip, I'm coming to that." Or some such.
- Some questions are premature in any context. That is, Rachel will know the answer at time T, but until that time, neither she nor anyone else can provide a reliable answer. For such questions, a straightforward explanation is the best option — "I don't know, and nobody will know, until time T."
- There is one exception. The exception case is when the question is meant as an attack, and Phillip (the attacker) knows that Rachel won't have an answer until time T. In that case, Rachel doesn't have an alternative in the moment. All she can do is provide a straightforward explanation.
- But if you can anticipate the attack, you can make clear, repeatedly and over time, that certain questions — and you will supply examples — won't have answers until time T. And, of course, explain why not. Then later, if anyone is foolish enough to attack you with unanswerable questions before time T, you can cite your previous advice that the answers wouldn't be available until time T.
- Respond with multiple choice
- In this response, Rachel avoids asking for clarification by providing multiple answers to cover the most likely interpretations of the question. The general form is "If A, then X. Or if B then Y… Otherwise Z." She can include as many "if" clauses as she likes, but more than two or three can become a bit impractical.
- Precise wording can be important. For example, suppose Phillip has asked, "Can we get this done by the end of the fiscal year?" And suppose that given the context, the phrase "fiscal year" is ambiguous. That is, suppose it's unclear whether Phillip meant FY22 or FY23. Then the following response could be off-putting or hostile: "If you mean FY22, then no. Or if you mean FY23 then yes." A safer response would be, "If FY22, then no. If FY23, then yes." The "you mean" phrases can seem off-putting or hostile, even though they aren't literally offensive.
- Leave a space before responding
- Sometimes, if you leave a space before responding, the questioner will elaborate voluntarily. Then the elaboration might be clear enough to remove any doubts about the interpretation of the question. By "leave a space" I mean, pause thoughtfully, and say something supportive, such as "Hmm, I see," or "Right," or some other content-free comment.
- This tactic is helpful if the question is unclear, and it isn't meant as an attack.
If you must respond to an unanswerable question, and you really don't have a direct answer, you might be tempted to make up what you don't know. That's perhaps the riskiest approach of all. Another word for it is deception. Top Next Issue
Is 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 welcomeWould you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenZLkFdSHmlHvCaSsuner@ChacbnsTPttsdDaRAswloCanyon.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.
More articles on Workplace Politics:
- Devious Political Tactics: The False Opportunity
- Workplace politics can make any environment dangerous, both to your career and to your health. This
excerpt from my little catalog of devious political tactics describes the false opportunity, which appears
to be a chance to perform, to contribute, or to make a real difference. It's often something else.
- Devious Political Tactics: Divide and Conquer, Part II
- While most leaders try to achieve organizational unity, some do use divisive tactics to maintain control,
or to elevate performance by fostering competition. Here's Part II of a series exploring the risks of
- How Did I Come to Be So Overworked?
- You're good at your job, but there's just too much of it, and it keeps on coming. Your boss doesn't
seem to realize how much work you do. How does this happen?
- Deceptive Communications at Work
- Most workplace communication training emphasizes constructive uses of communication. But when we also
understand how communication can be abused, we're better able to defend ourselves from abusive communication.
One form of abusive communication is deception.
- Bottlenecks: I
- Some people take on so much work that they become "bottlenecks." The people around them repeatedly
find themselves stuck, awaiting responses or decisions. Why does this happen and what are the costs?
See also Workplace Politics and Devious Political Tactics for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming March 29: Time Slot Recycling: The Risks
- When we can't begin a meeting because some people haven't arrived, we sometimes cancel the meeting and hold a different one, with the people who are in attendance. It might seem like a good way to avoid wasting time, but there are risks. Available here and by RSS on March 29.
- And on April 5: The Fallacy of Division
- Errors of reasoning are pervasive in everyday thought in most organizations. One of the more common errors is called the Fallacy of Division, in which we assume that attributes of a class apply to all members of that class. It leads to ridiculous results. Available here and by RSS on April 5.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenZLkFdSHmlHvCaSsuner@ChacbnsTPttsdDaRAswloCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.
Get the ebook!
Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:
- Get 2001-2 in Geese Don't Land on Twigs (PDF, )
- Get 2003-4 in Why Dogs Wag (PDF, )
- Get 2005-6 in Loopy Things We Do (PDF, )
- Get 2007-8 in Things We Believe That Maybe Aren't So True (PDF, )
- Get 2009-10 in The Questions Not Asked (PDF, )
- Get all of the first twelve years (2001-2012) in The Collected Issues of Point Lookout (PDF, )
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 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info