Beware of long answers

I think everyone's experienced difficult conversations in which you have to drag information out of someone. If you've ever had any training or experience in requirements gathering, sales, or other interviewing, you've also learned about open questions vs. closed questions. In my experience, this is almost always focused on drawing additional conversation out of someone who doesn't want to be conversational. There's another side to this phenomenon, though - the person who takes a yes-no question and fires back a wilting soliloquy.Some people call this doubletalk. Some people call it rambling. Many people don't even realize it's happening -- it's the long answer to a short question.

I've begun to pick up on this more quickly than I have in the past because I'm seeing it in a few people on a regular basis. I can now spot the "long answer" almost immediately, just by paying attention to the nature of the question. There are some questions, of course, that should be able to be answered in one or two words ("Yes", or "This week."). When your answer doesn't fit in that sort of box, it stands out vividly.

I've seen two forms of the long answer, and these can be difficult to tell apart. The first is just rambling. This detracts from effective communication, but it's not really too harmful. You can identify this answer because there is actual information in the answer -- it's just spread out across a whole lot of useless dialog. Watch for this from engineers who provide exhaustive detail when it's not necessary (if you're an engineer, pay attention to your own answers - it's easy to do this).

Thei second form of "long answer" is true doubletalk or evasion. This is best detected by remembering the question that was asked and trying to match the answer to the question. If someone manages to change the subject of the conversation in the first three words of their answer, they're deflecting attention from the original question. You can sometimes spot these in advance of the actual answer, because the question will demand a commitment in the answer:

  • When will you be done?
  • How much will it cost?
  • Have you documented the requirements?

The classic form of doubletalk is the political debate. Politicians are well known for their ability to talk on and on without saying a thing. Though it's less commonly recognized, this sort of thing happens all the time in business. When it's excessive, it's easy to spot, but very often, it escapes just under the radar. Again, keep the question in mind as you're listening to the answer, and see if the question is satisfied.

In order to become attuned to the "long answer", try watching for it in other people's conversations, and then watch for it in your own answers. Here are some occasions that may yeild examples:

  • Staff meetings.
  • Sales calls.
  • Job interviews.
  • Design reviews.

Armed with a little knowledge, you can make a lot of sense out of the context of some of these conversations, and the results can be enlightening!