You show up for a lunch date with an old friend you’ve not seen in awhile. You share a hug or a hand shake, sit down, and start catching up.
You friend asks how you’ve been and what’s been going on in your life and career. You start telling them about some of the things that have happened since you last connected. When you’re done talking, your friend says:
That was a great opening statement.
If ever you heard something like that from a friend in conversation, I think you’d find it quite a bit awkward. Why are they grading you out loud on their opinion of the quality of what you’ve just communicated?
Yet, for some reason, we’ve decided, at least here in North American business culture, that it’s perfectly fine to do this all time when somebody asks us a question.
Multiple times a day, I witness someone fielding a question in a professional context and then responding to that question first with a phrase this sounds something like this:
That’s a great question.
As a Dale Carnegie instructor I was taught that this is called, “grading a question” — and was coached hard to avoid doing it.
Telling people that they asked a great question before you answer it is problematic for a number of reasons.
First, it’s verbally inefficient. Saying, “that’s a great question” to everyone in the room each time you are asked something doesn’t add anything to the dialogue and just wastes time.
Second, it’s almost never equitable. If you’re fielding a question and answer session with a group of people, you’d better grade every question with the exact same wording and the exact same body language and facial expression. Otherwise, you quickly establish inequity.
Since it’s virtually impossible to grade each question the same, it’s worse than just wasting time. What ends up happening is that you tell four people in the room that that had a “great question,” but then you don’t say it to the fifth person who asked the tougher question you didn’t want to get.
I’ve seen it happen multiple times where someone was facilitating a question and answer session and they told almost everyone else in the room that they had a “great question,” but then didn’t say “great question” to the key customer, vice president, or other decision-maker in the room. Super awkward to watch.
When you grade questions, it gets really obvious pretty quickly who you are enjoying talking with in the room and who’s questions you really don’t want.
Third, at its worst, grading questions can be perceived as manipulative. This is especially troublesome if you’re handling a situation where there is some hostility in the interaction or some kind of difficult issue being addressed. Showing up and telling everyone that they are coming with “great questions” can look like you are hoping to win favor instead of just responding.
While I don’t recall seeing a situation where someone was intentionally trying to manipulate in this way, there’s something that feels really awkward about showing up for a meeting to address a major issue and the point person who’s supposed to be addressing the problem keeps repeating “great question” to everyone’s inquiries.
When I see this happen, I wonder why the person is putting such emphasis on making value judgements around what their stakeholders are asking instead of just addressing the problem.
Most of the time, we don’t mean anything bad by saying, “great question.” It’s just an unfortunate habit that unintentionally projects things we often don’t want to communicate.
My invitation to you is to stop this madness by simply responding to a question without grading it. If you must, restating or repeating the question in your own words is a better option than grading it.
If you will reduce the amount of grading you do in your interactions, you will allow people to more clearly hear what really matters in your responses — and leave all this other baggage behind.