The Value of an Incomplete Answer

The meeting was tracking well. One particular individual was contributing helpful information and insightful remarks to those in the meeting. But then… they couldn’t stop. They kept talking. Before long, their extra contributions caused us to forget what their meaningful content had been.

One more point, one more remark, one more anecdote. It soon becomes white noise for all those listening.

You’ve heard it. And if you’re like me, you’ve done it.

In a recent episode of the 5 Leadership Questions podcast, Barnabas Piper and Todd Adkins had Simon Sinek as their guest (you can listen here). Sinek recounted participating in a meeting early on in his career and really being the person in the meeting who could speak with the most authority about a particular project the group had been working on. And he did. And most of what he said really mattered. But as they were leaving the meeting, a mentor of his put their arm around him and said:

“Three quarters of an answer is better than an answer and a half.”

I’ve written about this topic in a previous post titled, Being Prepared, But Saying the Least (in meetings). But Sinek’s mentor’s remark provided me a clear word picture for this practice of knowing when to stop contributing, and reminded me that  a few comments too many can be the difference between meaningful content and dragging on.

Take freedom in knowing:

  • You don’t have to know everything.
  • Everything you do know you don’t have to share with others.
  • And (as Sinek says in this podcast) even when you don’t know, you don’t need to pretend you do.

Giving an answer and half isn’t all about ego. Not everyone who gives more than three-fourths of an answer is trying to make sure everyone knows they’re a subject-matter expert. Sometimes, the topic is so important, they believe putting everything out there is critical.

But it’s rarely critical. And if it’s important for everyone to hear a comprehensive answer, a well selected three-quarters will prompt others to ask for more explanation, whether inside the meeting or outside it.

A filter: less is more.

Or a second filter: does this last three-fourths I want to say really advance the conversation? Advance the meeting? Advance the cause? Or is my next contribution really about me?

The second filter got me yesterday. I found myself in a situation where I wanted to say more. I wanted to make a strong point. And yet, I was thinking about this blog’s content. It’s not easy (and I’m not revealing how well or not well I did yesterday) but either way, I believe and will try to practice… three-fourths of an answer is better than an answer a half. I hope you’ll do the same.

P.S. Also, don’t forget: sometimes we shouldn’t even speak the first three-fourths.

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