Why are we so bad at handling difficult questions?

May 21 • Communication Skills, Management and Leadership, Morry Morgan Blog, Presentation Skills, Sales and Negotiations, Trainers Blogs • 7821 Views • No Comments on Why are we so bad at handling difficult questions?

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THERE’S A REASON WE ARE SO BAD at handling difficult questions – School!

From age six to around age 22 we spend out life in a institution which, at least in theory, prepares us for work. Unfortunately, it is the method in which we are taught that is in complete contradiction to a work environment. Let me explain. In school, if a teacher asks you a question there are three responses:
1. Answer the question correctly (smart alec!),
2. Respond with “sorry I don’t know” (There goes Harvard!); or
3. Guess

For around 16 years, these three options dominate our life. Now, imagine doing anything, repetitively for 16 years (eg. smoking, biting fingernails, picking one’s nose) and you’ll know that not using either one of these three responses is a very difficult habit to break. Why is this a problem, I hear you ask. Well, as you know, we are can’t always be correct, so we can’t fall back on option 1 as our default. Sorry! Occasionally we are simply wrong. And this is where the trouble starts.

A few months ago I called Linnet from a panda friendly charity in Shanghai. “Hello,” I said to the receptionist, “may I speak to Linnet?”
“Sorry she’s not in,” was the response, followed by a pause.
“Okay,” I replied, assuming that there would be more to the receptionist’s statement, “When will she be back?”
(And this is when 16 years of habitual schooling kicked in!)
“Sorry I don’t know.”
(There was a longer pause).
I waited.
The silence was now uncomfortable.
“Um,” I said, “I can hear people in the background. Could you ask one of them when she’ll be back in the office?”
“Oh. Ok. Just a moment.”
(The sound of foot steps walking away from the phone, followed by the return of those same footsteps).
“She’ll be back in 30 minutes.”
“Great, thanks. I’ll call back” (Although I wanted to say, “That wasn’t too hard, was it!” with sarcastic tone).

But actually it was hard. Because, as I mentioned, this is a 16 year habit created by school teachers asking a question to which we do not know the answer.
“What is the capital of Saudi Arabia?”
“Sorry I don’t know!”
Imagine, if to one of those difficult questions we had said, “Great question teacher! Actually (turning to the rest of the class) does anyone know the answer?”
We’d be thrown out of the class and labelled a cheat, yet sadly it is this ability to seek assistance from our peers which is exactly what is needed in the work environment!

Option 3, that is ‘guess’, is even worse.
Nowhere have I experienced this phenomenon worse than in Beijing. While I’ve been living in Shanghai for 10 years, I only visit Beijing for a few days a month, and have yet to commit the roads and districts to memory (yes, shame on me).
On many occasions, when I am visiting Beijing I’ve asked for directions from locals, and each time I have received a confident response.
“Down there, to the right.”
“Up there, to the left.”
“Around the corner, down the road, up the street, and down the alleyway.”
All three directions could come from three separate Beijingers from the same street corner, indicating the same destination. And yet, they’d all be wrong.

My assumption for the poor directions is not that Beijing residents failed geography en masse, but rather a phobia of saying ‘I don’t know’ to a foreigner in reference to knowing about their own city. Almost an unpatriotic act.
When I brought this issue up with a couple of expats, they too shared similar experiences, indicating that this phobia is endemic.

And so I can conclude that ‘guessing’ is still very much a response for adults, well outside their school life. This is supported by ClarkMorgan Corporate Training’s finding’s in our 2010 Leadership Qualities Survey, where ‘intelligence’ ranked 6th most important as a quality for a leader in China. Since we can’t know the correct answer all the time, and yet our subordinates expect us to be an expert, there could definitely be pressure to fake the answers – or degrees, as in Tang Jun’s case.

Now imagine if you too have that habit, and in a work environment are asked difficult questions. Guessing the answer might seem ‘safe’, but chances are you’ll be wrong a few times, and someone will catch you out eventually. And yet, this is a very difficult habit to break, since for 16 years, we’ve been standing up and announcing confidently to the class.
“What is the capital of Saudi Arabia?”
“Baghdad!” we announce, almost believing ourselves.
If only school mirrored our work environment, and allowed us to reflect the question to our colleagues and ultimately get the answer. But school isn’t about ‘getting the answer’ it is about ‘testing whether we know the right answer’.
It is for this reason that this week you are going to say:
“Sorry I don’t know!”
Instead of turning to your colleagues and learning that the answer is ‘Riyadh’.

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