The Answers That Matter

Good questions don’t matter if the answers are unhelpful.

If a basic question is a good question, what makes a good answer?

I started thinking about this when someone who read The Questions That Matter responded with a question of his own:

Do you have any suggestions to prevent the inevitable blow-off non-answer to a difficult question?

The assumption underlying this question is that a “blow-off non-answer” is unhelpful and therefore undesirable. But I’m not sure that’s true. Rather, it seems to me that answers fall into four categories.

  1. Complete: Complete answers are both honest and detailed. They look forward to the logical follow-up question and answer that too.
  2. Partial: Partial answers are honest, but don’t tell the full story. Rather, these seek to address the question with the aim of ending the line of inquiry. Politics is full of partial answers.
  3. Glib: Glib answers are short, dismissive, and often sarcastic. They usually do not contain enough substance to be judged either true or false.
  4. Misleading: These are lies. They range from little white lies to malevolent deceptions.

It’s self-evident that complete answers are helpful. Complete answers are what we seek when we ask good questions. But it’s not the case that incomplete answers are unhelpful. Provided you can recognize partial, glib, and misleading answers when you hear them, they can be helpful as well.

Ways to say too much

The fall of Enron, for example, can be traced back to an April 2001 conference call between company management and analysts and investors. As you might expect from Enron, management gave no complete answers on that call — but their partial and glib answers revealed quite a bit. Here is an exchange from that call between then Enron CEO Jeff Skilling and investor Richard Grubman that began when a good question got a partial answer and then turned glib and profane:


By answering questions in this way, Skilling is showing his hand to anyone who is listening closely. It’s not as black and white as:

Q: Are you a fraud?
A: Yes.

But it’s close.

The interrogator’s tango

Interactions like these between investment analysts and public company executives are funny little dances. That’s because investment analysts are trying to gain useful insights to inform whether or not they should and in what amount buy or sell a company’s stock while public company executives are trying to make sure the analysts come away as bullish as possible. They want the investors not only to buy it, but to tell others to buy it as well. It’s to this end that they strategically use a combination of complete and partial answers to persuade. (There can, as in the Enron example, be glib and misleading answers in these conversations as well, but those tend to be reserved for use by companies with serious underlying problems.)

There is, however, a mutant strain of the partial answer that companies — and politicians — employ as well. That’s the complete answer to the question that wasn’t asked. Here, for example, is Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer being asked about the economics of a new partnership with Google:

Source: Capital IQ.

Rather than comment on the economics of the partnership, Mayer takes the opportunity to give a great answer about how it will enhance product capabilities and serve users. This is insidious (and probably means the economic aren’t that good), but because the analyst made the rookie mistake of asking two questions at once there is no chance to follow up.

That’s important because following up is the only way to make sure every answer — whether complete, partial, glib, or misleading — can be a helpful one.

Getting the answers that matter

Just as there is truth in every jest, there is insight in every answer. It’s a matter of teasing it out.

But following up is a craft. It doesn’t mean you berate your interlocutor or ask leading questions to get them to cop to something you already think you know. Rather, it’s keeping and even keel and asking good questions until you get your a-ha. Here are five rules for following-up:

  1. Be polite, but don’t want them to like you. 
    There’s a lot of signal in getting called an asshole when all you’ve done is ask good and fair questions. But that signal is lost in noise if you were rude and deserved it. On the other hand, beware of being friendly. A desire to be liked can mean that you end up helping them answer your questions or accepting partial answers as complete.
  2. Know your facts.
    My team aimed to have two people in any meeting with a public company executive. Person One was in charge of asking the questions. Person Two was tasked with note-taking and real-time fact-checking (enabled by Google and speedy wireless connections). If any answer sounded partial, glib, or misleading, Person Two would look up the specifics needed to follow-up with an appropriate level of detail and pass a note to Person One who would then do so.
  3. Never ask two questions at once.
    It’s tempting to try to pack as much into one’s allotted time as possible, but it’s impossible to drill into two ideas simultaneously. The ability to follow-up on the answer to the first question will forever be lost in the answer to the second.
  4. Be comfortable with silence
    People don’t like silence, so whether it’s the silence after you ask your question or after the other person took their first stab at answering it, wait a moment or two for the other person to fill it. You may just get the more complete answer you seek.
  5. If all else fails, put it in writing.
    We are more thoughtful when we write — it’s a medium in which we can deliberately set out to be more clear and precise. So rather than get bogged down or frustrated if a line of questioning isn’t going as desired, make a note to change the medium and see if you have more success there.

Make it matter

Even if you follow these rules, you may reach a point where your interlocutor says something like “I can’t answer that” or “We’ve reached the end of that line of questioning” or calls you an asshole. That’s fine.

Those are not complete answers, but they are confirmations that you’ve gotten the most you could out of an exchange. Further, if nothing else, and particularly if you got called an asshole, you have identified an area of sensitivity where further research is likely to add value. This is how blow-off non-answers can turn out to be almost as helpful as complete answers.

In Richard Grubman’s case, for example, he didn’t discover exactly what Enron’s problems were in his line of questioning on that call, but he did know that he had hit on a sensitivity. Grubman’s firm shorted the stock and made as much as $50 million. Getting called an asshole turned out not to just be a glib response. For Grubman, even though Skilling gave an incomplete answer, it turned out to be an answer that mattered.