It’s Never the First Answer©

If you know me, then you know I have a problem – I’m addicted to questions. I love how questions invite new learning and insights. I love the awareness that we experience through good questions. Like Albert Einstein, I believe that the search for the right question is more important than looking for answers, because the right question will lead you to the right answers. Okay, I guess it’s not really a problem (most of the time). However, I open with a discussion of questions because the opposite is true for many of you – you are addicted to answers and, more specifically, to the first answer.

Questions are hard. Answers are easy. Questions open the door; answers close the door (or so we think). Questions lead to reflection; answers finish the reflection. Questions are focused on the search; answers celebrate the end of the journey (or so you believe). Questions can be scary because of the unknown; answers feel safe because they end the questions. Questions (we believe) highlight what you don’t know; answers proclaim what you do know (or think you know). Are you starting to see the many ways and reasons that answers can be addictive?

On top of all of this, answers seem final. Therefore, the trap is to stop at our first answer for all of the reasons listed above. Thus, the challenge and opportunity for us is to embrace this mantra: It’s never the first answer! This does not mean that the first answer is never a good idea. In fact, sometimes our first answer to a question may be the most insightful, but that insight must be followed with more questions in order to get to the deeper truth. This is especially true for any questions related to people, communication, self-reflection or emotions.

For example, one of the biggest roadblocks for most people is some form of fear. In order to move past the fear, it’s often necessary to ask questions to identify it. However, because these questions are uncomfortable, most people stop at the first answer and miss the opportunity to really understand the core of the fears that are getting in their way, personally and professionally.

I remember working with a client some time ago who was struggling in his sales role. Rather than work on skills, we took a deep dive into what was getting in the way of him doing the things that he knew he needed to do. His first answer: “I guess I’m afraid.” First of all, this is where many people stop. The acknowledgment of being afraid is often so difficult that when you finally admit it, it feels so good that you say to yourself, “Whew, it’s good to know that.” And then you stop the inquiry, but the more important next questions are the specifics of that fear.

I then urged the client to go deeper by following up his answers with questions like “why,” “so what,” and “does that feel like a fear that would stop you?” A few questions later, he said, “I’m afraid that I’m going to let my wife and family down, and then I will lose them.” I responded by asking him if that was true, and he said, “No, I will not lose my wife or my family over this.” Isn’t that interesting – he believed that this was the deeper fear, but it was not, and he just needed to speak it, hear it and be questioned on it to figure this out. Many questions later, we got down to his deeper truth – the story he believed about himself – that was getting in the way of his success, but that would not have happened if he had stopped at the first or even the tenth question.

Similarly, I was recently working with a client who was struggling with honoring the business development commitments he had made. When I asked him why, his first answer was the same one that I hear nearly every day: “I was busy.” I’ve already written a great deal about the addictive drug that is the busy excuse, but suffice it to say that “busy” is one of the most obvious untrue first answers. I then asked my client specifically why he was struggling with making his follow up calls, and he answered, “Because I keep getting distracted by my day-to-day legal work.” While technically true, this was not the real answer. Several questions later, he finally got to the root of things when he said, “I don’t want to appear pushy” and ultimately “I don’t want someone to dislike me because I’m too pushy.” These were not his first, second or fifth answers, but even though the early answers all had a bit of truth in them, they were not the truth that would help him change and improve.

I have found that the first answers are not only easy (and usually not true), but they are also very comforting. The mere act of having an answer feels good and lets you off the hook so that you don’t have to go any further or deeper. You actually believe the first and early answers, which is why they are so alluring. Yet they are not the answers that will help you get where you want to go.

What IS the answer? Simple; don’t accept the first answers and understand that they are just easy, not developmentally true. What is developmentally true? This means the deeper answers and truth that will help you change your thinking and your behavior so that you can grow and achieve your desired objectives. All of your answers are technically true or have truth in them, but it’s up to you to choose not to take the easy out of the first and early answers. In addition, this is a great opportunity to ask others (I call them “challengers”) not only to ask you (and help you ask) better questions, but to invite you past your first answers to find greater understanding and more impactful truths.

Once you’re willing to push past the first and early answers, it’s a matter of continuing to question yourself (or accept the questions of others) until you run out of answers. As I noted above, a great strategy is to pretend that you’re a five-year-old whose favorite word is “why.” When you give that first answer, say any of the following to yourself:

  • Why?
  • So what?
  • Who cares?
  • Why does that matter?
  • Is that all there is?

These and similar encouragements will help you and others go beyond the first answer to the land of the real answers – the answers that will help you understand, learn, change, grow, develop, and thereby achieve and succeed. Just remember, it’s never the first answer.

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