Answering the Question that is Asked

For some reason, when I add my name to articles and such I use a more full version – J. Mike Jacka. I guess it is to distinguish me from all the other Mike Jackas out there. (You laugh – there is a real estate agent in Minnesota named Mike Jacka. You can Google him. I learned about him when I accidently got one of his slot club cards while I was at the Rio Hotel and Casino in Vegas. But that’s a story for another time.) 

Over dinner the other night, someone asked me, “So, what does the ‘J’ stand for?” I replied “Jerry” and then went on with the full story. My father and my grandfather were both Jerrys. My father was Jerry Donald, and my grandfather was Jerry Adolf. (That one quickly disappeared shortly before the Second World War.) To reduce confusion, they called me by my middle name.
I then went on to tell the story of when my wife and I were expecting our first child. She felt that if the tradition were to be continued she wanted to bring it to an end. It just so happened that the names had been bestowed in alphabetical order (“A”, “D”, “M”) and she wanted to name our child Zachary - a “Z” – to bring it to a close. I balked because I thought Jerry Zachary Jacka sounded way too much like Hickory Dickory Doc.
Once I finished this monologue, the individual looked at me and said, “All I asked was what the ‘J’ stood for.”
Okay, the whole thing about Zachary was probably way more than anyone wanted to know. But, of course I answered more than was asked. You know as well as I do that the follow up question was going to be “Why do you use your middle name?” And, from there, additional questions would have been asked – the conversation would have continued to flow – and it would have resulted in my telling the full story (including the whole “Zachary” thing.) I was just saving us all a little time. 
But it also points out the interplay that exists in any conversation. Even in the most casual of conversations, there are agendas to the discussion. Sometimes that agenda is purely entertainment, but there is always communication below the conversation. How’s work? How are you and Ted doing? Who was that lady I saw you with?   Have you stopped beating your wife? Depending on the asker and the situation, the answer may be quick and glib or slow and thoughtful.
In business, it only gets worse.  The answers to the most simple questions may have an impact on future careers. And underlying any question is a set of unspoken questions. So, as we formulate our answers, we try to determine what the questioner is really getting at. Then, depending on what we perceive those hidden questions to be, that is how we answer the question. The boss asks about a project and we dig behind the question to figure out if he is trying to praise or punish us. If we think he is trying to praise us, we frame our answer in a way that will make it even easier for him. If the intent is to punish us, then we phrase it in a way that will make such punishment impossible – phrase it in a way that puts up all the defenses before the attack can even start.
Yet, we often forget this when we, as auditors, are the questioner. We know our motives are pure and that all we want is the truth and everyone will be better if we can learn exactly what is happening. But we forget that some people (no matter how well respected/appreciated/loved the audit department is) feel we have their careers gripped tightly in our fists waiting for any excuse to crush with extreme prejudice. And so they answer the question based on their suppositions about our agenda. 
And far too often we take people’s answers at face value as if they weren’t framing them around the fears engendered by speaking with the auditor.
Which leads to two quick reminders. First, we need to prepare for the word dance before we open our mouths. We need to be couching our terms around the situation and the individual. Second (and maybe more importantly), we also have to listen to those answers with an understanding of the situation and the individual. Just as they are answering a question that was not asked, we have to be finding the answer that may not have been actually stated.  
There is quite a dance that goes on in any conversation, and the conversation between auditor and auditee adds just one more layer of complication. However, even in situations of great fear, people love to talk. And, if you can phrase it right – if you can make the first step of the dance just right – then you should have to do little else but carefully listen. 
And that actually raises another interesting point. Answering just the questions that is asked is boring. And people do not like to be bored. So people will talk.
But let’s save that for our next installment.

Posted on Jul 22, 2012 by Mike Jacka

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