Before reading my post, just check out this 1:30 clip of an episode on the West Wing. The scene is between the White House Press Secretary, CJ Cregg, played by the charming Allison Janney and the White House Counsel, Oliver Babish, played by an actor I love watching even if he's never a main role, Olliver Platt.
In this scene, Oliver is interviewing CJ after she learns of President Josiah Bartlett's health condition. His task is to uncover any possibility of lying that may have occurred while this condition remained a secret to many. The key for this post is the dialogue from 1:07 to 1:30. Check it out.
In case you didn't check out the video here's the dialogue below:
OLIVER Okay. [pause] Do you know what time it is?
C.J. pauses and glances to her right, presumably at a clock on the wall.
C.J. It’s five past noon.
OLIVER I’d like you to get out of the habit of doing that.
C.J. Doing what?
OLIVER Answering more than was asked... Do you know what time it is?
C.J. stares at him silently for several moments.
C.J. [annoyed] Yes.How often do you answer more than is asked in a question? Sure, this is intended to prepare her for a courtroom setting, but nevertheless it is such an important lesson to learn. How often do you take for granted the specific question and answer one that isn't asked? It could be something as simple as a "yes" to the question "do you know what time it is?" But it can also be a question like "what are you doing?" and instead of answering, "the dishes," you say "why are you asking? Can't you see I'm doing the dishes? You're always asking questions!"
Perhaps I need to clarify. What I see happening here in this scene is how emotion drives our answers to questions. I saw it a lot in myself today at work through a specific e-mail I received. Instead of answering the specific question asked by a client, I read into it all the discussions that had preceded it. I drafted an long e-mail to answer the question in the context of that larger discussion, one that, looking back on it was lengthy because it was defensive. To be on the safe side, I sent it to be read by another set of eyes. I thought he would send me back an edited version of my e-mail. Instead, he told me I'm not addressing the question asked, but one that isn't even asked and that I should respond to the question and not the situation. Thankfully, I had whatever wits about me to send it to him before sending it to the client.
You see, I wrote that e-mail in an emotional, defensive posture. I read behind the question to a question that wasn't even asked and answered that. In doing so, I not only addressed the question, but answered a heck of a lot more than what was asked. I brought this up with The Wifey and said, "I do this a heck of a lot, don't I?" "You do," my adorable, brutally honest love said.
Why should we take Oliver's words to heart? Why should we stop answering more than what we're asked? Because there's something beautiful to being disciplined and patient enough to only answer what is asked. The most important reasons it's beautiful is that it doesn't assume anything about the person or the situation other than the question that's being asked. Perhaps we need to start small (and annoying) with answers like "yes" to questions like "do you know what time it is" in order to get to the place my friend at work is (he's amazing at this). I can see it when it's done well and even coach others toward that direction because I know how valuable it is, but I am not a practicer of my own preaching here.
Am I the only one though? Hopefully only one word came to mind if you've learned anything in this post.
I'm just hoping that word is, "No."