The Answer Just Gets Us More Questions
Most of us spend much of our day answering questions. It wears us out.
We deeply believe that we're supposed to answer the questions. It's what we do, it's who we are, and it's the role we play. But what if that's a flawed premise?
Believing that we should always have the answer is stressful. Sometimes it’s more than we can bear. We’re tired, nervous, distressed, and anxious. We’re not always sure we can cope. We survive, but sometimes it’s touch and go.
It’s challenging when we’re the people everyone else comes to for answers. The clients ask us what to do. The employees do as well. Sometimes our vendors want our guidance on how we want “it” (the copier, the Internet, the website, the business cards, whatever) handled. Then there’s our family asking us for input. The questions just keep on coming.
Deep down, we know they could answer the questions themselves. We know that our answer isn’t much, if any, better than their best guess. After all, our answer is merely our best guess. We don't always “know,” but we always answer.
But the questions keep on coming, so we keep answering. We respond, “Go ahead and call her,” “It goes over there,” “Send the money he needs,” “Tell him you did it,” “Stop doing it,” “Start doing it,” and on and on. You’ve got questions. We’ve got answers.
It’s hard to answer one question before the next question flies at us. Sometimes we want to hide out in the closet.
We accept our role as the answerer. We buffer ourselves by regulating our e-mail, limiting our phone calls, and closing our door. But we know we’ve got to spend time each day answering the questions because our failure will cause progress to stop. Answering is the role we play.
Is Answering Questions the Best Idea?
But does it have to be this way? Is this the best way?
Let's stop for a bit, spend a few extra minutes hiding in the closet, and look at the big picture. Let's take a minute to ask ourselves a question.
What would happen if we stopped answering the questions? Would the world stop spinning if we stopped answering?
It’s valuable to acknowledge that we’ve created a culture, with ourselves at the center, that requires us to play our part as the answerer. The team needs us to be there leading, guiding, and answering. That’s what we’ve built, whether we’ve done it consciously or accidentally. We’ve made a business that doesn’t work well without our being central to the decision-making.
Why did we build it this way? It’s likely that we didn’t think much about it before it evolved. We didn’t mind everyone turning to us at the outset. In fact, we like knowing the answers and being able to respond. It feels good to be thought of as the person who knows what to do. We feel important and valuable. We appreciate the respect that comes from being useful at the center of the group.
What Would Happen If We Stepped Away?
What would happen if we stopped answering the questions?
Many things would likely occur—some of them good, and some of them less good. Certainly:
- They’d do it differently than we’d do it.
- Some things would fall through the cracks (like they do now).
- They’d get it done eventually.
- They might get done better. That could feel uncomfortable for us.
- Some folks couldn’t cope. They might leave.
- Some folks could cope. They might grow.
- Your team will change and evolve to the new culture.
- You’d likely end up with some new team members who better fit the new way of doing business.
- You might feel out of control and might react poorly to your emotional distress.
- You might like it.
- The business might grow faster. It might be more profitable. Your clients might be happier.
It’s likely that, at least sometimes, allowing someone else to answer the questions would result in better answers that are delivered more effectively, generating a more positive reaction.
Why I Stopped Answering Questions
My first experiment with not answering questions came unexpectedly. I was trying a custody case in downtown Raleigh. We settled on the second day during a mid-morning break in the hearing. The day before, I'd felt an odd pain in my arm. With my family history of heart disease, I was concerned.
After the judge approved the settlement arrangement, I went to the emergency room. I waited a few hours and they gave me an EKG and a blood test. Shortly thereafter, I was admitted to the hospital.
They cut open my chest, bypassed my arteries, and sent me home four days after surgery. That was quite an experience.
The surgery was easy. The recovery was harder and took longer than four days. I stayed home for six weeks. I didn’t make many decisions during that period. The Percocet was working. I didn’t care who decided, what was decided, or what happened as a result. I watched a lot of television, but only if it wasn’t too funny. Laughing hard hurt. I had to turn off Seinfeld one night. My decision-making was limited to TV channel selection.
Did the wheels come off at the law firm? To the contrary.
My absence gave our team room to step up, jump in, and grow. They turned it on, cranked it up, and drove to victory. It was impressive.
Of course, I reacted emotionally. I felt unimportant, less valued, and out of control, and I quickly spotted the things they were doing “wrong.” Thankfully, I mostly kept my mouth shut. The increasing revenue encouraged me to keep my concerns to myself.
How I Finally Adjusted to Answering Less
It took me a while to adjust to the change. Once I felt better, I was tempted to step back in and start answering questions. I went back and forth with myself. I’m rarely gracious about being less than the center of attention, but something happened soon after I returned to work that slowed down my return to being the master of my universe.
I made a BIG mistake.
I went back to court after I recovered from the surgery. I tried a case. It went poorly. I screwed something up with regard to the financial evidence. The details don’t matter. Thankfully, my malpractice carrier stepped up and hired a great lawyer who repaired the damage. The client wasn’t harmed, and life went on for everyone involved—except me.
I was reminded in that courtroom, and in the hearing a few months later when the motion for reconsideration was heard and granted, that I didn’t have all the answers. The ordeal helped me capture and retain the lessons learned when my team stepped up during the recovery from surgery.
I didn’t see it clearly at the time, but I had learned that I didn’t have all the answers. I’d learned that my team often had better answers. I had started down the path to letting go of some of my control and started feeling that things might actually be better for everyone involved if I stepped back some.
Accepting that we don’t always have the best answers is hard. It was really, really, really hard for me.
Sometimes those of us who believe we have all the answers need to get kicked a time or two, or three, to get out of the way and let others contribute. It’s not easy to let go. Being out of control doesn’t feel good for many of us.
What Does Letting Go Look Like?
What happens when you stop answering all the questions?
- Turnover goes down. The team sticks around.
- Others answer the questions.
- Others feel valued and know that they’re being heard.
- Team members start to trust themselves.
- Revenue goes up.
- Employees feel a sense of ownership when they see their decisions manifest as action.
- The business gets stronger, healthier, more intellectually diverse, and emotionally stable.
When we let others take on leadership roles, they grow the business. It’s good for them, it’s good for the team, and it’s good for you. The leadership vacuum gets filled if you endure the awkward period while the culture changes. Having more leaders creates space for more followers, more clients, more revenue, and more profit.
When you’re the only source of answers, you become the bottleneck. Growth depends on you. When you step to the side and give others space, some of them will pass you. Some of them will take things in different directions. Some of them will take steps to enhance the business in ways you don't expect. They'll do things you couldn't have done yourself. They'll see pathways you haven't yet seen.
How do you make the shift from being the repository of all wisdom to being just one source of input? How do you stop being the solution to every problem? How do you reverse the pattern that calls for your input, answers, and decisions at the end of every discussion?
Six Action Steps to Start Letting Go
Here are specific action steps to step out of the role of answerer.
1. Say “I don't know.”
I used to feel stupid when I said it. I thought it meant I didn't know things (which I guess it does) and that not knowing would cause others to think less of me. I found that I could temper my disdain for saying it by adding “but I'll get back to you with an answer” to the end of “I don't know.” Getting back to people became a nightmare. So I dropped the “getting back to you” part and was filled with a sense of relief after I used “I don't know” a few times and nothing bad happened.
Try it sometime. Walk down the street and wait for someone to ask “What time is it?” Say “I don't know” and keep walking. It's weird. Nothing happens (except in New York City, she'll notice your watch and scream “asshole” at you as you walk away). Embrace it. There's no requirement that you answer the question, even if you happen to know the answer. Yes, I could have looked at my watch. Yes, you can Google their question for them. Yes, you can spend two hours on Westlaw for them. Or you can say “I don't know,” and they can go find the answer elsewhere.
Here's the really useful tidbit: saying “I don't know” is good for the recipients. It's better for them to reduce their dependence on you. It's better for them to learn how to find the answer on their own. It's better for them to gain confidence in their ability to believe in their own answer. It took me years to realize that saying “no” to my children was best for them. The same is true of “I don't know.”
2. Answer questions with questions.
“How many days do I have to give them if I request documents with my subpoena?” she asked. “What rule is that covered by?” you ask in response. She says, “I don't know.” (It's fascinating that saying that doesn't stress her out, huh?) You counter with “Do we have a treatise that covers this stuff?”
Just don't answer the question. There's always a question you can ask. The answer is never the only answer. Be careful, however, to answer nicely. I'm usually a snarky prick when I do it. That doesn't always have the desired outcome.
3. Develop systems documentation.
Build documented systems for your practice. Most of the questions you get during each day at the office are routine. There's rarely anything new or interesting (which is part of why this is so exhausting). Everything from making a bank deposit to preparing a closing argument can be incorporated into documented systems.
Once the systems are created, you can start answering, “It's in the system.” Pointing people to the system documents is helpful and critical. Your systems should never sit dormant. You need your team accessing the information constantly so it stays fresh and alive. In a perfect world, they're revising and updating as they encounter new issues and questions.
4. Buy resources.
Don't be frugal when it comes to information and training materials. Send your team to continuing education. Buy the books and videos. Sign them up for online training, and give them access to the databases required to find the answers.
5. Create specific training materials.
Some problems/challenges/cases are more complicated and involved than that what systems documentation can cover. Sometimes you need to teach a way of thinking, a certain perspective, or an attitude for approaching particular problems. Use video or audio and create internal courses for your team. Head the questions off at the pass by teaching the team how to handle large challenges before they encounter them.
6. Stop believing that you're always right.
Let it go. We're not always right. We don't always have the best answer. The way they do it is different, but it's sometimes better. It's not uncommon for our lawyers to say it far better than I would have said it, whether they're speaking to judges, opposing counsel, or clients. My way was just one way. There are many ways to get from here to there. Let it go.
The bottom line is that we're not always right. It may be useful to us to believe that we're right when we're in front of judges or influencing someone to adopt our way of thinking. It's not particularly useful to believe we're always right when we're trying to grow our business. There are many ways to be right. Accept that others on your team have likely found some of them, and they will look different from your way.
What Will Happen When You Stop Answering?
Lots of good comes from stepping away from being the central source of answers. The stress level goes down. Team performance levels go up. The creative solutions to complicated problems get better and better.
It's not an easy journey to shifting from being the only person who answers to having others answer for others and for themselves. Change is hard. Lawyers move slowly. Culture is stronger than bricks and mortar. You'll find yourself starting, backing up, pushing forward, and then finding the path. Don't push too hard, but don't fail to push. This change will be good for you, good for your team, and good for your clients.