Beware Your First Answers

When it comes to asking questions of ourselves or about situations (often related to assessing risks), we need to be very aware of our first answer and even answers. The problem with our first answers is two-fold. First, our first answers (especially around risks or obstacles) are typically the biggest (i.e. scariest) and the least likely to occur. Second, our first answers to questions (including seeking to understand our motivations or reasons) are typically designed to maintain the status quo.

In other words, our first answers are nearly hard wired to avoid change or doing something different (or going outside our comfort zones). Thus, it’s critical that we build new habits around not accepting our first answers and always digging deeper for what’s really true (at least for us), what’s the real risks or fears and what are our real motivations or hesitations.

Let’s now explore each of these first answer challenges to see how they get in the way of our most conscious decisions and from achieving our most important objectives. First, let’s look at the risk or fear related answers. When I work with people who are struggling with people or issues at work, I often ask them “What might happen if you spoke up about this issue at work?” Nearly every time the first answeris “I’ll get fired.” In response, I then use a powerful tool in helping people to assess their own answers – I repeat back what they said almost verbatim so that they can hear it fresh.

In this example, I would respond “If I hear you right, if you speak up about this issue at work you’ll be fired?” In nearly every case, the person responds by saying something like, “Well, I probably wouldn’t get fired.” While this was the first answer, when they play it back they realize that it’s really not true. While they could be fired, it’s not likely. We can then explore what the real risks and fears are. For example, they might be seen as a troublemaker, it might impact relationships at work, they might be seen differently, etc. While these are real risks, but they’re different than the first answer risk.

Similarly, if someone is looking to make a change in their career and I ask them, “Why don’t you quit and find something that’s a better fit?”, a common answer is something like, “I can’t just quit. I have to have this income.” While money and the need for it is a reality, we tend to exaggerate the risks related to change and, thus, we often exaggerate the financial realities and risks with our first answers.

While your first answers may have some truth in them, if we stop with our first answers we’ll never fully understand the issues, obstacles and opportunities involved with any course of action. Instead, we must go deeper and keep digging into the risks and fears so that we can have a more complete picture of what’s in front of us.

The second issue with first answers is related to the first, and it’s specifically based upon our general inclination to protect ourselves with our first answers. First answers often protect our comfort zones or keep us from taking uncomfortable action. First answers also are a way for our brains to keep us where we are – they run counter to changes in thinking, perceiving and acting. 

For example, a question we often ask when considering a change or different course is what might happen. While some of us are the exception, most of us start by focusing on what might go wrong or not work. Rarely do our answers start with what might go right or work well. This is largely due to our natural instincts for self-protection, which is why we must push through and past our first answers.

Similarly, when we’re exploring the reasons or motivations for everything we do or don’t do, we must also push past our first answers so that they don’t mislead or distract us from what might be a great opportunity for growth or different outcomes. One of the ways that I counter this natural response mechanism is to respond to peoples’ first answers by saying something like “so what” or repeating the “why” question.

Here’s an example:

  • Why are you hesitant to take on this new challenge?
  • Answer: Because it might not work.
  • So what?
  • Answer: Because it might fail.
  • So what?
  • Answer: Because I might fail.
  • So what?
  • Answer: Because I might look bad.
  • So what?
  • Answer: Because I might disappoint my family.
  • So what?
  • Answer: Because I might disappoint myself.

Notice how each answer gets deeper and clearer as to what’s really getting in the way, and this clarity about what’s in the way is the best way to move past what’s in the way. This is why it’s vital to be willing to move beyond your first answers to discover and even uncover what you’re really thinking and feeling. This is a key to not only personal growth but making decisions that best serve you and your objectives (or organizational objectives). 

First answers are easy and often not true (or at least not the most true). When you’re able to push beyond your first answers you’ll get greater clarity on what’s at risk and your fears, obstacles, reasons and motivations. If you and your organization want to achieve more of what you want, one simple step is to beware your first answers.

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