I like to steer away from giving out a textbook answer whenever a question presents itself to me. I try to look into the questioner and try to understand his/her mindset and circumstances. This is what I like to do when I am asked a question, whether it be face-to-face or in written form.
I don’t always stick to this rule, because certain circumstances make it difficult to do so. But as much as possible, I would hold on to it because it is a more effective answering method. Plus, it shows that you put in more effort in answering as opposed to immediately answering based on what you memorized.
In my view, a basic principle in answering a question is to consider who is asking and match your answer to the questioner, not simply memorize answers and spit them out like in an exam. Sometimes a question is asked but the question itself isn’t the root of the problem, but a mere symptom to a much deeper problem.
Ideally, you want to go straight at the root of the problem and not be sidetracked by the symptoms. It doesn’t help that the symptoms are more obvious than the root of the problem, so you really have to pay close attention to the details. This takes a lot of work.
But the work will pay off because you are helping the person in the long term, not the short term.
When it comes to answering a question from a person, you have to realize that the question is born out of a unique experience. So that experience needs to be taken in consideration when answering, otherwise you might not be answering the question at all (even if in your mind, you are).
For example, let’s say someone comes to you and asks about the existence of God. That person doesn’t believe that God exists. Now, it is tempting to just go through your memory bank and fetch the most compelling argument that you have read somewhere and give the person “a piece of your mind”.
Not so fast!
Take some time to think about the experience of the person and look closer at the context in which the person is living in. Maybe it is true that he absolutely believes that there is no such thing as a God. Or, maybe he is just upset at God and saying that He doesn’t exist is just his way of expressing his disappointment.
Or, maybe he just have a different concept of God altogether.
Let’s take that last assumption and go with it. Sometimes we think that the words we use, especially those we use often, mean the same thing for all people. There are many examples of such words. We don’t think twice about what those words might mean to the person we are speaking to.
In this case, the word is “God”. In our mind, we think it means the same thing for everyone. Yes, we are using the same word but we are not using it in the same way. Since we are not aware of that reality, we assume that the person asking has the same understanding of God as we do.
So, we immediately go into attack mode and start spewing arguments to the person. When in fact, a simple place to start would be to ask a very basic question, “What do you mean when you say ‘God'”? It might even be a silly question in our mind, and that is why we don’t think of asking that in the first place.
To us, who doesn’t understand God? Everybody understands God and in the same way, right?
You understand God your way. He understands God his way. So essentially, you are both talking about two different things, even though you are using the same word – God.
Upon asking that simple question, you might realize that he doesn’t see God the same way and you are both not on the same ground. If you are not on the same ground, then you can’t have a productive discussion. That conversation is destined to go nowhere, even though you are both talking about the same thing.
This, in essence, is the importance of listening first before you answer. Don’t quickly access your answer bank in your mind and spit out an answer. Listen to the question, consider who the questioner is, and then give an answer accordingly.