Most people do not know how to answer questions. Whether in a conversation, an interview, or in a legal proceeding, most people just flat out need help answering questions. This is evident when you watch any political commentary show, such as Face the Nation, or similar shows. You will see misdirection, obfuscation, or outright evasion of the question being asked.
In my view, the biggest reason people have trouble answering is that they do not listen to the question. To say this is important would be an understatement. I have been practicing law for nearly 20 years and have been in many courtrooms, legal proceedings, interviews and conversations with clients, and I can honestly say that most do not listen to the question being posed. At best, they may hear half of the question. We are in a society where we are bombarded with “CNN talking heads” that do not answer questions themselves by not listening or deflecting the question with a not-so-relevant answer. So, if you find yourself in a situation, and in particular, a legal situation, where you need to answer question, keep the following in mind:
- Consider the question style you are being confronted with. For example, is the question open-ended, which would require an explanation on your part? Or is the question more close-ended, which could be answered with a “yes” or “no?” Do you have a broad question that will require a lengthy answer, or can you get away with a short, concise statement?
- Answer clearly and concisely, and then stop talking. First, as mentioned above, listen to the question being asked, then answer just that question in a clear and concise matter as to the point as possible, and then stop talking. Too often people continue to talk unnecessarily after the answer is given. In many situations this will lead to more questions about your behavior, movements, or in legal proceedings, about your liability. By answering only the question in a clear and concise manner, you limit the exposure that you have to follow up questions. This is particularly true if you were being questioned by a trained interviewer. If you can answer a question with a simple “yes” or “no” then by all means, do so. This seems to be a lost art. People have a tendency of saying “yes” or “no”
to a question and then carrying on to explain themselves. When you are confronted with a question that can be answered with a “yes” or “no,” simply do so and stop talking. Wait for the person asking questions of you to follow up. They may not follow up, they may forget, they may become uninterested, or otherwise not pursue the line of questioning that they were asking about. Answering questions with a “yes” or “no” can also limit the time that you will be subject to questioning by your interviewer/spouse/significant other/legal representative. Economy of words is an important art.
- Speculation and conjecture is the third thing that gets people in trouble when answering questions. There is a time for guessing, but most of the time it has no place in answering important questions. These would be questions from your accountant, doctor, lawyer, dentist, etc. You may be able to guess when you are answering questions from your spouse, but when answering important questions from professionals, it is best not to guess. Speculation and conjecture lead to incomplete, fragmented, and inaccurate answers that are of no benefit to anyone.
- Nothing is a memory test unless you are in school. If you do not remember the answer to a question, simply say, “I don’t recall.” Saying, “I don’t recall,” forces the questioner to use a recall device, like looking at a letter, document, or picture to jog your memory. Perhaps it does, but perhaps it doesn’t, but, again, nothing is a memory test and saying “I don’t recall” is a good answer when it is true.
- If you do not understand a question, do not answer it. I have seen too many instances where people try to answer questions to which they really do not understand, do not know the definitions included in the question, or have not comprehension of the subject matter. If you do not understand the question, simply say, “I do not understand.” There is no shame in not understanding, it may be just bad questions being put to you by the questioner that are unintelligible, unreadable, and not understandable. Force the questioner to narrow the question down from board to narrow so that you can understand it and answer it in a clear, concise manner without guessing.
These are my top tips for answering questions in a clear, concise manner that will allow you to communicate effectively.
Joseph Wetch is a Fargo, ND lawyer practicing in all North Dakota, Minnesota and South Dakota courts. Contact him at 701-232-8957 or firstname.lastname@example.org.