Understanding questions more important than answers

This column was originally published as part of my “Looking Homeward” series at Herald-Dispatch.com.

Two first-year college students struggled with their math homework on the family room floor. Calculators, scraps of crumpled papers and empty coffee cups littered the table. One was busily consulting the math book’s last pages, back where answers usually reside.

“Oh, I see,” my father remarked. “Are we looking up the answers?”

My sister dropped her head, sighed and then slowly looked back up at our father with that classic teen-age expression, that excuse-me-I’m-trying-to-get-work-done-here-and-you-interupted-with-an-annoying-comment look.

“Dad,” she said with great patience considering her age and temperament, “the answers are no good unless you understand the questions.”

And with that, Dad quietly slid out of the room and stole away to the solitude of his bedroom to watch television where easy questions and answers were found.

The answers are no good unless you understand the questions.

In this day of short-cuts, fast-forwarding and result-driven living, answers sometimes come too easily.

Many a non-profit organization has become derailed after it accepted money outside of its mission. Chasing money and then pairing a program to support it creates an unsettling “cart before horse” philosophy, when easy answers don’t support the questions the organization was founded to address.

Other businesses are not immune, either. They, too, can become distracted, chasing butterflies with non-strategic diversification, when business endeavors do not support the core mission.

For organizational health, it is wise to keep focused on the questions the business seeks to answer.

In my IBM sales rep days, we began each year with account planning sessions to identify the business questions we wanted to help our clients address. Our plans kept us focused on the bigger picture goals and helped us manage our time appropriately.

At home, we face the same if not more daunting challenges. On the parenting battlefields, discipline demands that both answers and questions be clear.

Our responses to our children’s inappropriate behavior are often quick and decisive. Yet sometimes we get so tangled up in our answers, our carefully crafted age-appropriate consequences, we forget to clarify the question.

“Now tell me exactly why you are being punished?” our parents often asked us before, during and after punishment.

That’s a worthy question. Children have a right to know why they are being punished. And parents have a right to know if the child knows why he is being punished.

Beyond the infraction, though, we may need to probe further, ensuring the child understands the values that make the behavior unacceptable.

For example, a punishment after speaking rudely becomes a lesson on respect; after breaking a curfew, a lesson on commitment; after missing a homework deadline, a lesson on priorities.

It’s a simple but necessary effort to understand the question so that the answer will make sense.

However, easy-answer living, where the path of least resistance reins, can yield its own consequences.

“Much in life that we find meaningless,” my father wrote, “may be traced to easy answers substituted for hard questions never understood.”

Indeed, the answers are no good unless you understand the questions.