An Answer Without Context Is Useless

Answers without context are useless - future Funded MinistryAn answer to a question without context is not only useless, but dangerous.

One of our key staff at Envoy, Dave McHenry, reminded me the other day of a maxim I’d shared with him some time ago, “An answer without context is useless.”We spent a few moments exploring that truth within the context of our Retirement Plan Sponsor service delivery.

When someone asks a question, almost any question, the responder has some immediate choices to make. First is the issue of, “What is the question?” Are the words being used reflecting what the questioner really wants to know? Or, is there a question behind the question that is the real question. So the issue becomes “Should I attempt to answer exactly what is being asked, or should I ask a clarifying question?” Clearly figuring out the real issue, what is truly being asked, is a major key to answering any question.

Answering questions carries with it responsibility, danger, and opportunity. The responsibility part seems obvious. Although, when you dig deeper, there are some surprising elements. The assumption behind the question is that you know the answer. Not only that you know the answer, but also that the answer will be truthful and helpful to the questioner. The assumption behind that one is that the answer will in some way be helpful and will impact the future actions, thinking, or decisions of the person asking the question.

In some ways, being asked a question is a compliment. It suggests that not only do you know the answer, but also that the answer will impact the questioner. It suggests that not only do they want to know the answer, but that you, or your department, or your service team, are able, qualified and willing to answer. There is an important responsibility each of us carries when we answer questions.

There is some danger that goes along with “how” we choose to answer a question. Yes, a choice for sure. The choices we have involve our capacity, our objective, and the consequences of how we chose to answer. The first step of our internal thought process is, “Do I know the answer?” Clearly the answer to that internal question and what we chose to do with it is critical. Some choices include giving an answer, any answer, just to make the person go away and so we do not look foolish by saying, “I really don’t know the answer.” Then the next choice, “But I will do my best to find out the answer and get back to you.” Or, “You might check with “another source” and I think they may know more about that than I do.” Our capacity to answer impacts our relationship.

I’m reminded of an experience of our son Brent. As many of you know, Brent was born with Rubenstein-Tabi Syndrome. One of the many syndromes that occur. This one occurs in 1 out of 125,000-300,000 births. So it is rare. However, Brent was working at Home Depot. Experientially you know that when shopping at a builders supply or hardware store the two most important features are sufficient inventory and knowledgeable staff that can answer questions. Brent worked in the lighting department and proudly wore his orange apron.

Their training was excellent and certainly impressed on Brent the importance of always helping customers promptly. And so he did, unfortunately, one result of his disability is to not be efficient in connecting the dots between cause and effect. It played out this way. A customer would ask him a question and he would quickly have an answer. “Where can I find penny nails?” Brent answers, “On aisle 23 in the back (at the other end of the store).” While this momentarily satisfied the customer because he got a pleasant and prompt answer, the answer was just wrong. As you might imagine, Brent was put in a situation where he was bound to fail. The story makes the point so poignantly, that capacity and what we chose to do with that capacity is critically important. And yes, the store adjusted quickly, understanding the problem and moved Brent to a job where he could succeed.

Our objective and attitude towards answering a question is also important. In Brent’s case he wanted to please, although his answer was not helpful. Digging a little deeper here we see that our personal objective impacts our answer and ultimately our relationship with the person asking the question. We can shield our answer by minimizing it. We can misdirect the other person by either not telling the truth, or perhaps by just sharing part of the answer. “The way to town is that way”, without sharing that the bridge is washed out. Was the answer truthful? Yes, but it was not the entire story, was it?

Our objective or purpose impacts how we will answer any question. Are we being helpful, hurtful, honest, or insightful? Do we want the person to just go away, or do we want to make a difference in their life and take any step towards building relationship. Are we shielding ourselves, secreting ourselves from prying questions, or does transparency and connectedness play a role in our answer? Our objective impacts how we answer questions.

At Envoy we made a decision about “questions” a few years ago that had a tremendous impact on our ministry. For years our policy was to direct questions from participants or plan sponsors to specific individuals with subject matter expertise. If that person was not available, the customer would be told that they will be called back. Our rationale, our priority was to make very sure they got the right answer from the right person. Frankly, our service response time was not acceptable. Then we did an in-depth study and learned that many of the questions were repetitive and the answers could be learned by many of our staff and in a fairly short period of time. Bethany Palmer, our President, then tried an experiment: Each caller’s question would be answered while they were on the phone the first time. No callbacks, answers now. We staffed, trained, and organized around that directive and guess what, our service response time coupled with rave reviews were the result. Our objective and purpose made a tremendous difference in our service delivery, and consequently on the impact of our ministry on those we serve.

Remember the topic here, “Answers without content are useless”. If we are asked the temperature and we answer, “It is 58 degrees”. We answer truthfully but with no context. Is it going up or coming down? Is it reflective of a force of nature that is bearing down on us, or is it a prelude to the most beautiful day of the year. The context makes a difference. It makes a difference to the person asking the question, and impacts our relationship with them. If Jesus had just answered the questions posed to him with a yes, no, or curt response, we would know little about how we are to live our lives and reflect who He was and what he modeled for us. Thankfully He always gave us context.

One last thought. An answer without context is actually dangerous. It is dangerous because of the harm that it can do to the person receiving the answer, and because of the harm to the relationship between the parties. Without context there is the potential for misdirection, misunderstanding, and yes, even hard feelings. As a Christian I am constantly reminded that it is all about “relationships.” Our personal relationship with God and with each other. How we chose to answer questions impacts all of the above. Think about it. I am. Context is important.

Living with Trusted Advice together,

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