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How a Question May Be the Best Answer



A dear friend called me to ask for advice about her sister-in-law who was just diagnosed with breast cancer. In thinking about the best way to respond I again became clear on the idea that the simplest answer is the best, start with the intention… I asked, “What is most important to her, and what is she willing to do to get that?” So quickly we are tempted to offer immediate solutions, in medicine that means treatment options. There are many “right” options, many approaches that will tackle cancer but not necessarily account for the person as a whole.


So I ask you, no matter the context, medicine or business, when posed with a question do you jump to the “answer” which is formulated from your own perspective, desires, and, priorities or do you hold in your response and ask another question?


It is so easy to jump to “solution mode” and later find we have missed valuable insights, barriers, or perspectives. Most of the time there is more than one right answer, isn’t the key to answer the “right question”?


Oscar Trimboli, a leader in the art of listening, talks about the “125-400 rule”, we typically can think at about 400 words per minute but only speak about 125-175 words per minute, this leaves about ⅓ of your thoughts unsaid! If we respond to only the first words a person says then we have most likely missed an opportunity for clarity and refinement. A lost opportunity to connect and discover the most important ideas.


You may have heard what they said, but not allowed for the entire thought.


Allow for a pause in the conversation, allow for a moment to reflect, allow time for deeper insight.


Without intention, we are destined to interrupt valuable thought.


Atul Gawande wrote a captivating article in Slate Magazine in which he recounts the beautiful “dance of knowing” between a terminal patient and himself (her physician). He captures the struggle and the pull to jump to a solution when the “right” answer may be in doing less, allowing for quality moments, and in this case allowing for death.


My Challenge To You:

  • Resist the temptation to answer immediately, instead take a breath and allow for a moment of pause which gives the other person permission to elaborate or clarify. Count slowly to 3 before responding.

  • Notice your own 125-400 rule, how accurately does your spoken word reflect your true thoughts and intentions? This will require insight and deep reflection. Does what you say reflect what you mean? Remember, the other person is not in your head and will only know the words you speak.

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