Just answer my simple question!
August 18, 2011 12:45 PM   Subscribe

Why do some people refuse to answer direct questions, and instead will respond with a question of their own? How can I understand this communication pattern to stop being enraged by it? and how do I get my questions answered?

This issue is somewhat related to this question, but there is less rambling in my situation, and more avoiding my question by asking me a direct question in response that requires me to go do more work or distracts me from my original question.

Basically it seems really aggressive to me, and seriously irritating when I just want to find an answer to my question and check something off my to-do list.

Here are two examples, one is from a boss-type person (so it seems impolite not to run off and answer the questions) another from a peer (so could be handled more directly, I suppose).

Example A (boss type):

Me: Hi Linda, I wanted to see if you were able to look at that TPS report and decide if you are OK with the direction?

Linda: I didn't look at it yet. Can you find out for me whether Paul, Joe, Jen and Maureen have any issues with it? Also, is this TPS report the most current and can you get that? And, I'd like to know if there's anything new in the Marketing plan that effects my approval of the TPS report.

Example B (peer)

Me: Hey Julie, can you tell me what vendors you are using for the conference so I can get started with them?

Julie: I'll have to look at that. Have you called Jim yet about the space? What about the budget? Send it over to me so I can look at it. And what do you want to do about the cocktail party? I need to know your preference for colors.

In both cases:
1. The new questions asked by Linda/Julie have never been asked before and may or may not be relevant to the situation at hand.

2. My typical response is to directly answer the questions asked, and maybe repeat the question I originally had in that same conversation/email or wait (if they indicated they need time to think about it). My general communication style is direct (if I don't know the answer I say so, and then find out the answer).

3. Neither Linda nor Julie will actually follow up on the original question without additional prompting - then, as you can imagine, it's rinse-and-repeat - which then brings up more questions for me to deal with.

Basically this drives me insane. I have made up lots of stories in my mind about the attributes of people who may use this style, things like this:

- They are super disorganized and don't think about what they need until I am in front of their face

- asking new questions is a form of misdirection to avoid answering my question

both of those interpretations are a bit less than charitable - it might be nice to consider a kinder interpretation or to understand that some people just aren't like me and adjust my style appropriately. Most importantly, I'd like to get my damn question answered.

A. What am I missing about this conversation style or thought pattern? (that may help me be less knee-jerk enraged by it)

B. How do I get the info I need?
posted by rainydayfilms to Human Relations (28 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Neither of the scenarios you've offered are, to me, rude in any way. In both cases Linda and Julie answer your question by saying they are still thinking about what you've asked and will answer later, and then move on to other orders of business so that the conversation can continue.

Answer their follow-up questions, and then parry a follow-up inquiry of you own into their court by asking, "Cool! Glad we could cover X, Y, and Z. When do you think you'll be able to tell me about Question A? Would later this afternoon be okay for me to follow up with you?"
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 12:57 PM on August 18, 2011 [19 favorites]

It seems like, in both cases, there is a very clear answer. Both start out by making it clear that they haven't really dealt with the issue yet. They don't seem to be avoiding answering so much as saying that they don't yet have an answer for you. And then, to show that they actually care about the issue (even though they haven't had time to deal with it yet), they ask follow-ups for you. You claim these follow-ups may or may not be related... But in each example you give, they seem pretty related. Maybe not directly related, but definitely circling the topic.

Here's a (non-work) example of how I'm reading this type of scenario:

Person A: Hey, where should we go for dinner tonight?
Person B: I haven't thought about dinner at all yet. Hey, is that new Italian place open yet? Maybe we should invite Jim -- but isn't he a vegan or something?

Is that a pretty similar case, to what you're describing? Because, that's how I'm reading your examples. And, again, here the point of B's answer isn't to ignore the question, but instead to work (with A) towards finding an answer. Again, what I'm seeing in your cases is the person saying this: "I don't have an answer for you yet, but here are some related issues that we should also deal with." If what is bothering you is that they don't yet have an answer for you, then that's your problem: they're not on top of things as much as you'd like.
posted by meese at 12:57 PM on August 18, 2011 [9 favorites]

In both cases, I think they're trying to divert attention from the fact that they haven't done whatever it is they're supposed to be doing. In both cases, they haven't looked at/thought about what you're asking them, so they say that, but then go on to ask you some questions about it that they've been saving up for you. It's in the back of their minds, enough to worry about whether you've got your part done, but not enough to get them moving on their part. I would just give them some time to do whatever it is you're asking about, and ask again.
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 12:58 PM on August 18, 2011 [3 favorites]

Linda did answer your question. She said wasn't able to look at it. The second half sounds like she needs more information to give her OK, when she does look at it.

So did Julie. Her answer was affectively "I can't tell you right this moment, no." but instead of being disappointing and/or rude, she tells you she will make an attempt to answer your question. The rest, like Linda - is getting extra information so she knows which vendors are best suited to your answer.

Either you need better examples, or you need to work on interpreting what people tell you.

Sounds to me like you have other problems with these two and falsely blaming this as the reason. (Sounds like you're uphappy with their disorganization)

It's okay to be disappointed that they haven't given you the information you need. Start adding things like: "Well, can you tell me by the end of the day?" "can you do it in the next hour?" when they haven't done what you needed.

if they still don't, escalate to your boss.
posted by royalsong at 12:59 PM on August 18, 2011 [3 favorites]

You can't get your questions answered if they don't want to answer. They are just employing strategies to make you forget the question you asked, to change the subject, or to make you responsible for asking the newest question.

You can't make somebody do something they don't want to do. So you have to first convince them that answering your question is the best step.

How you do that depends on the situation.

Good luck.
posted by hal_c_on at 1:00 PM on August 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

As for A, they are answering your questions, just in a completely unhelpful way. In the first, you ask if she's looked at it and she says no. In the second, "I'll have to look at that" basically means she either doesn't know or can't remember what vendors she's using. Why they then go on to ask you questions, I don't think anyone can say for sure, but I think there's a good chance that either they were going to ask you anyway, and now here you are, or they feel bad or on the spot, and are trying to distract you from their inability to give you the information you need.

As for question B, when I've had jobs where situations like this came up a lot I resorted to sending regular but friendly emails ("This is the info I still need from you in order to complete the _____. Please let me know as soon as you can.") or occasionally just guessing their answer and proceeding as if I had it. But that really depends on how well you know what they're likely to do, and what sort of thing you're working on in the first place. Obviously sometimes you couldn't do this.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 1:04 PM on August 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

It's frustrating to get the run-around but absolutely par for the course in your standard business environment where you are not the boss. You're not, you know. And you have limited powers to hold people's feet to the fire. The best way to get what you want is with good humor. Force yourself to smile at them with genuine warmth and then take a breath. Answer their questions and then restate your needs. Then walk away thinking about using a small part of your paycheck to enjoy a nice bottle of wine.

Something that took me a long time to learn is that your worth in any business is directly correlated to how much people like you. It is not a meritocracy.
posted by amanda at 1:06 PM on August 18, 2011 [3 favorites]

Example B (peer)

Me: Hey Julie, can you tell me what vendors you are using for the conference so I can get started with them?

Julie: I'll have to look at that. Have you called Jim yet about the space? What about the budget? Send it over to me so I can look at it. And what do you want to do about the cocktail party? I need to know your preference for colors.

In this example, if Julie doesn't have the final info about the budget, and the space hasn't been confirmed, likely she *can't* tell you anything about the vendors yet, until she has those big-tent details ironed out.

Linda, I think, only wants to have to look at the report once. If Paul, Joe, Jen, Maureen, or Marketing want to make changes, she'll have to review it a second (or, worst-case four more) time(s), and she doesn't want to do that. She wants to be the final approval, not the first out of five.

I think in both cases they're basically saying "I can't answer your question until I have more information".
posted by anastasiav at 1:10 PM on August 18, 2011 [5 favorites]

They answered your question "Did you look at that thing?" with "No" making the rest of the question unimportant.
posted by inturnaround at 1:11 PM on August 18, 2011

Oh, man, you will not last long in corporate america if this is not going to work for you.

They are either asking for more information or stalling, but the only way to get an answer would be to put some sort of deadline on them. "I need the list of vendors by tomorrow at noon so I can lock in the logos."
posted by JohnnyGunn at 1:14 PM on August 18, 2011 [7 favorites]

Yeah, it seems like you're getting your answer. I think you need better examples. Otherwise, the answer seems to be "no". And if it's a situation where you're coordinating an event, just because they haven't done whatever they were supposed to do doesn't mean you haven't done what you're supposed to do, or preclude them from asking you to do something. More things for you to report done, while they fiddle around and don't get a damn thing done. Then you can put that on your yearly review, eventually become both their bosses, and then bark at them when they say they haven't done something.
posted by cashman at 1:14 PM on August 18, 2011

Generally speaking, many coworkers and clients just don't think/communicate/organize the same way as you (the generic you) do, and there's not much to do besides roll with it. They almost certainly have their own to-do lists with their own priority scales, and maybe they haven't seen your TPS report because they've got their own fires to put out. It probably seems inefficient in your eyes, but you may do things that seem inefficient to other people. That's just the way it is when you're working with others.

Both of these examples seem pretty okay to me. Linda and Julie did answer your question - in both cases, "I haven't gotten to look at it yet" - and then they have their own, directly related questions. They're probably trying to engage in a conversation about the subject and get more information, and they would find it inefficient, aggressive, or tiresome if you insisted on short question-answer-leave interactions.

It sounds like you're asking these questions in person; can you ask them over email instead? Most people are less likely to ramble in work emails, and you can just tl;dr the rest instead of waiting for them to finish talking.

As for getting quicker answers, when they reply with "I don't know yet, but can you answer these thirty other questions?" just bounce it right back at them, and close with your original request: "Good question, I'll find out and get back to you. In the meantime, can you email me your response to the TPS report by noon? Thanks!"
posted by Metroid Baby at 1:18 PM on August 18, 2011

As far as I can tell, in both examples, the person didn't look at your report or other information yet, and they tell you that out of the gate. Since you are there with them, they go through some of the items they need from you. Not rude, not passive aggressive that I can see.
posted by kellyblah at 1:20 PM on August 18, 2011 [5 favorites]

I have been in the position of "Linda" before and issued responses not unlike the one you recite here. If I were to give a robustly detailed explanation of everything I was thinking (not that it's always the other person's concern, but still), it may look something more like this - again, using your example as a template:

Linda: I didn't look at it yet. (I know I asked you to help me out with task X a while back, but since then my peers and bosses have had me working on tasks A, B, C, D, E and F, so I have not been able to review your work - as others note, this is in fact an answer to your question, albeit not the one you wanted.) Can you find out for me whether Paul, Joe, Jen and Maureen have any issues with it? (Because I know I am not the only one with a say in the matter, and other people's input will also be relevant. For instance, Paul is higher ranked than me so if he approves of your work or needs any rewrites, there is no need for me to comment as he has final say.) Also, is this TPS report the most current and can you get that? (Because, for efficiency reasons, I would like to make sure I am reviewing the most current one - see previous note about feedback from others) And, I'd like to know if there's anything new in the Marketing plan that effects my approval of the TPS report. (Also for efficiency reasons, I would like you to include all supporting documentation. Honestly, this is probably a subtle hint that you should have attached the Marketing plan in the first instance.)

I think this is just regular workplace give-and-take, it's not at all unusual, insulting, or aggressive. It sounds like you are coming at it from the perspective that "I have done what I was told, now I need to know X. I have set out to find out X, and this person not only couldn't tell me that, but now they have me running to get Y! Now I have to do both X and Y - argh!" Which is really just kind of how things go in a busy office with lots of different things going on all the time. As long as the new requests are coming from an appropriate person, are reasonably within your job description, and are not causing you to do uncompensated overtime, then I would just roll with it.
posted by Joey Buttafoucault at 1:27 PM on August 18, 2011 [7 favorites]

Linda/Julie both answered your question. The answer was "No".
posted by dgeiser13 at 1:32 PM on August 18, 2011

In case B, you have a question you need to ask Julie, and Julie has questions she needs to ask you. You ask your question. Julie answers it. Maybe not the answer you wanted, but she does answer it. Then, conveniently (since you're already right there talking to each other) she can ask you her questions.

What's wrong with that? What would your ideal situation be? Once you ask your question (and have it answered), are you expecting a 15-minute moratorium during which Julie ought not ask you questions? Because that would be absurd.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 1:35 PM on August 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


The subsequent requests from your boss might be deflection bullshit to hide her failure to do what she should have, it might be a passive-aggressive swipe at you for daring to question when she will do something for you, it might just be stuff you reminded her of.

In all three cases it doesn't matter. You just have to do it.

The way to avoid being irked at this is to remind yourself that (a) you answer to them, they don't answer to you. If they are jerky or incompetent or screwups it's THEIR BOSSES' PROBLEM, not yours. and (b) stop thinking of this as an effort to get XYZ and accomplish ABC and think of it instead as an effort to remind Linda that you did indeed get her what you were supposed to.

Your proper response is to say okay, I can have that for you in X time so I can proceed with XX which requires me to have your approval on that TPS report.
Me: Hey Julie, (QUESTION)

Julie: (OBFUSCATED ANSWER WHICH CLEARLY MEANS NO I DON'T KNOW) [possibly reasonable requests of you or maybe shit you can't possibly do till she gives you what you need]
You got your answer here. You're just (somewhat reasonably) irked that she didn't do the right thing which is commit to when she WOULD get it done or get back to you with the answer. So you do the reasonable thing - you agree to the requests that are reasonable after you get a commitment from her on when she'll do her shit.

You can look non-douchy by saying "Sure, I can do some of that, let me write it down. Let me get a pen here... and when will you have a chance to look up those vendors? I know I'm going to need them before I can get some of those answers for you."

Again, might be PA bullshit, maybe she's incompetent or just scatterbrained. Doesn't matter, you still have to work with her. The best way I can suggest you try not to be annoyed with it is to revel in your superiority and assume she'll eventually get hers. The way you cope with it is to manage the encounter and get a time commitment for her part.

It's a drag that some of the people we have to cope with at work aren't organized and don't follow through on their obligations. You just have to manage them by pressing them into commitments. In the case of Julie you drop her an email with as much info as you can scare up in 90 seconds, remind her of what you need and when, and make a commitment to when you get her what she needs and meet that commitment.

When they get the picture that you're gonna be the comethrough kid and keep at them for their commitment they'll go their part just to keep you off their case. Might mean they start screwing someone else over on deadlines but hey, you're getting what you need.
posted by phearlez at 1:45 PM on August 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Randy Pausch (of last lecture fame) had a really great tip about communicating with people you need something from:

Have a timeline and clear consequences, for them. (bonus points if your timeline is a day or two ahead of when you really really need the thing. Not a controlling week, but give yourself some wiggle room, ya know? We've all been faced with the realization that today is not the best time to be begging for things you needed yesterday.)

You not being able to get the logos done tomorrow is (probably) of no consequence to Julie. Find out why Julie needs to get the vendors to you. How does not getting that list make her life harder? If it doesn't, then you're out of luck on speeding things up. However, she has brought to your attention that she needs more information, which you have or have not provided her. (It's possible in your example that you've emailed her all the budget and space details, and she has not seen them/forgotten them/etc), and she's giving you consequences for that. So in the future, when you give her all the information, give her a deadline, and a consequence.

As for Linda, unless there is someone above her waiting for her input, and she knows about it, she's going to keep waiting to hear what others say. After all, if she can get 5 people to say "it's fine" first, she can either rubber stamp it, or be the hero who catches some major problem. Both are appealing. If everybody is expected to read the damn thing twice, have it be clear that everybody reads it by 9/1 and then they can all compare notes on 9/2 and then they need to give it a final look by 9/4 so that it can go to the printer by 9/4 at 3pm. If folks get to jockey around being the last person to touch it so they can avoid copy editing minor changes, this will drag on forever.
posted by bilabial at 2:21 PM on August 18, 2011 [4 favorites]

Sorry - these are really two separate situations I now see. And my example questions were way too logical - it's really not that logical. [also, throwing in power and authority was WAY too distracting, I shouldn't have framed it that way]

Let's assume that none of the questions posed at me are related at all to the original question (they feel like complete misdirection from my pov - and I'm really mostly curious if there is another pov to see it from)

Me: Hey Julie, (QUESTION)

Julie: (OBFUSCATED ANSWER WHICH CLEARLY MEANS NO I DON'T KNOW) [possibly reasonable requests of you or maybe shit you can't possibly do till she gives you what you need]

This is pretty close to what I'm getting at.

I'm sure they are reasonable requests (which I have no problem doing) it's just that they are somehow framed as: "I need more info from you" when really they are two completely separate things.

It's like if you asked someone what they wanted to have for dinner, and they deflected the question and started asking you if you had decided what to do for vacation next Summer. Perhaps their question was sparked by your question, but it's certainly entirely unrelated and gets neither of you closer to figuring out what to eat for dinner.

Thanks for the GREAT responses despite my poor question asking here.
posted by rainydayfilms at 2:29 PM on August 18, 2011

Let's assume that none of the questions posed at me are related at all to the original question

I stand by the gist of my previous answer: you have questions you need to ask Julie, Julie has questions on a completely different topic she needs to ask you. That doesn't mean both topics can't be covered in a single conversation.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 3:50 PM on August 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

All of the questions asked to you, in response to your original question, sound like they require you to do more work. Linda, for example, is asking you to do all of the leg work required for her to approve your TPS report. She seems to be asking you to do her job. It is a clever maneuver. I would stop asking questions.
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 4:16 PM on August 18, 2011

I agree with DevilsAdvocate. I think most of the above answers still stand. Even if it's totally random like:

-Do you know what vendors you're using?
-Hmm, not so much. Do you have a good recipe for peach pie?

She still said no to your question. You still have to respond to hers, and, later, get the info you need. So you could say "No, I don't bake. But let me know about the vendors when you know." And then follow up and ask again if she doesn't. Or, "Sure, I make peach pie all the time. I'll email it to you." And do it, and in that email, write, "Also I really need to know about those vendors by Friday. Thanks!"

It's frustrating, but I think it's just life.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 4:17 PM on August 18, 2011

I think that, in a workplace situation, often saying "Did you look at XYZ?" or "Did you have a chance to do ABC?" is just a way of generally bringing that topic up, and it's perfectly ok to ask other questions about that topic, rather than only directly answering the question.

On reading your followup question, I also think it's perfectly normal to ask a colleague about a project, have them tell you that they have no updates, and then continue to talk about other work-related stuff. As in "No, I don't have XYZ but I've been meaning to ask you all this other stuff." That seems perfectly normal to me, and I wouldn't think that this was a runaround tactic right off the bat without other evidence. Even if it has the effect of getting you off track, I'm not sure I would assume a malicious intent without other examples. I think it's just human nature to have the conversation bounce around like that.

In my opinion one of the hallmarks of a good team leader is to precisely guard against this sort of thing. People who can keep the discussion on-track in meetings are somewhat rare, in my experience!
posted by lillygog at 4:55 PM on August 18, 2011

In your examples A and B, Linda and Julie have answered the question you are asking. They are also, in addition, following up with their own questions/comments/statements.

Linda and Julie aren't done with what you're asking about, at least not in the way they feel they should be, and probably not at all.

Are you actually upset that they're continuing to speak and engage you beyond the direct answer to your question? Or are you not getting that they are answering your question, or not understanding what their answer is? It seems like you're frustrated that you're not in control, and dealing with your frustration is going to have to entail dealing with that.
posted by J. Wilson at 5:11 PM on August 18, 2011 [4 favorites]

I think you're also not asking very directly. You're kind of soft-balling your questions and in doing so make it seem more like you're introducing the topic for general brainstorming and conversation rather than asking for a specific piece of information.

So instead of "I wanted to see if you were able to...." Try: "Did you look at the report yet?"... and then pause and wait for a response. Don't tack on other things to your question. When you ask more than one question in the same breath, you are setting up the other person to do the same. Whatever happens with Linda's response, make sure you get in at the end "Okay, well please let me know when you've looked at the report" or "Yep, that's the latest report. When do you think you'll be able to look at it?"

Instead of "Can you tell me..." just say "Hey, what vendors are you using for the conference?" Whatever else she asks you afterward, you can say "Actually, do you mind if we talk about the rest of that later? (<--this is not a real question, so don't give her even one second to respond.) Right now I need to get the list of vendors. Would you pull up the list for me?" And then stand there looking at her, making it clear that you're going to wait at her desk until she produces the list. Not in a mean way, pleasantly, but expectantly, like of course you assume she totally has the list ready! Oh, she doesn't actually have it quite yet? "Okay, when will you finish it?... You don't know? Do you think you'll have it by 3pm today? No? How about before lunch tomorrow? Yeah? Okay great, then let's touch base tomorrow at about 11am" (meaning you will be back at her desk again tomorrow morning).
posted by thebazilist at 7:32 PM on August 18, 2011 [3 favorites]

If the question isn't your first examples - which in my (and everyone else's opinion) were actually answered but the question is instead like your followup, where you ask something and they change the topic or very deliberately skirt around it, I would try asking the same question again, if they skirt around it again, I would be very very direct and say something like, "I'm sorry, but you're not answering the question. I need to know, point blank whether blah blah blah, is it yes or no?" If they skirt around it, say it again. Now this is quite confrontational, you can soften it with a smile or the manner in which you say it, but either way you need to make it very clear that you're aware they're not answering it and you're going to insist politely that they do.

Some people are just clueless and give you a braindump of whatever they're thinking about without answering the question, and others are sneaky and will deliberately obfuscate to avoid answering. The latter are hoping to take advantage of the social convention that most people avoid confrontation. If you cut to the chase, it deals with both of them, you just need to be prepared to do it. You'll be known as a straight shooter, and some may not like you for it but you'll at least get an answer.
posted by Jubey at 8:31 PM on August 18, 2011

You've just got to realise that people will do the things you ask/need them to do in their own time. You can ask, you can even send friendly reminder emails or schedule time in their diaries to do stuff but you cannot make your peers or your bosses do things on your timetable.

Two kinds of people normally get to do that - bosses and employees who are very good at managing their bosses. That would not be you at the moment because you don't seem to appreciate the subtleties involved, nor are you experienced enough to appreciate the various other elements that affect your task - otherwise your conversation with boss would be "I was wondering if you've had a chance to look at the TPS report I sent last week. I have now had feedback from X, Y, Z and they only had minor changes and I have checked that the revised marketing budget has no impact on this. If you have not looked at it as yet (normally the most likely answer) I'll email you a new version which incorporate the other feedback"...i.e. you know the process well enough to pre-empt all manner of other stuff and the boss literally just has to do what you ask them to do. At that point you are much more likely to get them to commit to a timeline.

Finally, it is also perfectly reasonable that both bosses and peers will remember a range of other things they wanted to talk to you about when they have you standing there. That's just human nature. And it is normal that your to do list grows in the process because that is the nature of communication and collaboration - you talk to each others and confirm what needs to be done and who needs to do it, you follow up regularly through the process. Who does what is established by communication. If communicating with boss it may be work is simply assigned, which is also communication. If talking to peers hopefully it's more mutual. But what you are describing is how all office type workplaces work. So you'll have to get used to that.
posted by koahiatamadl at 9:20 PM on August 18, 2011

Notwithstanding that some people are difficult to work with or get a straight answer out of but in the vast majority of cases people just remember other things when talking to you - I do this to my teams all the time, mainly because I normally work on a bunch of things at the same time and as you have now interrupted my train of thought with your initial question I try to remember what else I needed to talk to you about to make this interruption more productive for me.
posted by koahiatamadl at 9:33 PM on August 18, 2011

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