Why I Don’t Always Give People an Answer

I have a theory, which I practice often.

I’ve been using it for many years – as a leader, father, a friend, and a pastor. It’s not always what people come looking to me for, but I think it’s the best practice.

I don’t always give people answers.

  • As a pastor, people came to me for answers.
  • As a dad, my boys, now grown, often still come to me for answers.
  • As a friend, people come to me for answers.
  • As a counselor, people came to me for answers.
  • As a leader of a team, people come to me for answers.

In either case, I don’t always give people answers.

I don’t try to solve their problems for them. I know that seems hard to understand , maybe even cruel of me, unless you understand why I don’t.

Now, if there is a clear Biblical answer for their problem or issue, I give it to them, as I understand it. And, there are certainly things, which are my responsibility and I have to make a decision. I make dozens of these type decisions everyday. I’m not afraid to be the deciding voice when one is required of me.

I’m talking about decisions, which are the responsibility of other people to make. These are the issues more difficult to discern. Things such as career choice decisions, the calling in life decisions, who to marry, how to respond to a marriage conflict, how to deal with difficult parents or children or friends, etc. – the unwritten answer type decisions. When there are multiple, seemingly good options available, I don’t try to solve their problem.

For those type issues, I probably have an opinion, but I almost never “have” the answer.

Instead…

I help people discover a paradigm through which to make the decision.

  • I help them see all sides of an issue.
  • I ask probing questions to spur bigger picture thoughts about an issue.
  • I share Scriptures, which may speak to both sides of a decision.
  • I serve as an outside voice and become an objective listener.
  • I connect them with people who may have experienced similar issues.
  • I often diagram the problem, as I hear it, so they can see an issue on paper. (This is one of my favorites.)
  • I help them learn to pray and listen for the voice of God.

And then I release them to make a decision.

Here is my reasoning…

If I solve the problem for them (or attempt to):

  • I’m just one opinion — and I am often wrong.
  • They’ll resent me if it proves to be a wrong decision, and trust me less the next time.
  • They may never take ownership of the issue.
  • They’ll likely do what they want anyway.
  • They won’t learn the valuable skills of listening to the voice of God.
  • They won’t learn from personal experience. (And, that’s the best way we learn.)
  • They will only rely on someone giving them the answer next time, failing to develop real wisdom, which comes through years of wrestling through the hard decisions of life.

My advice – for leaders, parents, pastors and friends:

Don’t always have an answer – or at least not THE answer.

Help people form paradigms through which to to solve problems and make wiser decisions.

Ideally we want people to develop healthy decision-making skills. We want them to gain dependence on God and the acquired ability to seek and discern wisdom. If we always make the decisions for them – if we always tell them exactly what they should do – they become too dependent on others and may never develop fully into who God has designed them to be.

Are you too quick to have an answer sometimes?

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Ron Edmondson

Author Ron Edmondson

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Join the discussion 18 Comments

  • jimpemberton says:

    Ron, there's a lot of fabulous ideas woven together here. In the overarching theme, the goal isn't to tell people what to think, but to guide people in how to think.

    There are times where you need to be able to give people an answer (1 Pet 3:15 for example). But even in those times, it's important to help them to understand opposing viewpoints. If we believe that we have the truth, then our truth must be capable of explaining the views of others and we shouldn't shy away from any reasonable comparison.

    Being able to discern when to give an answer and when to help someone work through it themselves involves an understanding of at least a few principles, that I'm sure I don't have completely worked out myself. However, I'll offer a few thoughts on this:

    1. Understanding the true motive behind a question. Often people ask one question and hope to hear the answer to a question that they really don't want to ask. They may be motivated by unnecessary shame, suspicion, deceit, a lack of understanding of the true issue. Working with someone gently here will help open them up to whatever they may be closed to.

    2. Understanding that there are questions regarding truth, some of which may have an epistemological foundation that is more or less certain, and questions regarding mere opinion or preference. These less certain questions may have to do with making the best decision about a course of action. Questions about more certain things either indicate a lack of familiarity regarding something or may be testing the boundaries of epistemological certainty, i.e. "Can I really know that this is true?"

    3. Understand that there is a context behind every question. Even if someone is simply curious, there is a reason they are curious. If you know the context of their question, then it helps you know how to guide them. So some question require you to ask a few questions back in order to know how to approach it.

    4. It is often good to thank someone for asking you. By asking you a question, they have given you some temporary authority in speaking into their life. That's a privileged position that shouldn't be dismissed lightly.

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  • Chris Patton says:

    Ron, this may or may not be the exact same thought, but it certainly applies…replace "leader" or "pastor" with "husband"!

    WAY too often, when my wife wants to tell me about the "issues" of her day, my mind goes straight to problem-fixing mode. Of course, I know better after 17 years of marriage, but that doesn't stop me! She continues to tell me that she is not looking for a fix from me. She just wants me to listen.

    A lot of the advice you have given above will help this kind of situation as well!

    • ronedmondson says:

      It absolutely applies. I left it out possibly…because I'm not that good at it! Ha! I tend to raise to have an answer for my wife. I'm working on that more every day! Thanks Chris
      Twitter: Ronedmondson

  • Joe Sewell says:

    Pastors, especially, need to heed this advice. Some people go to the pastor for every little thing, rather than study the Word for themselves. They become too dependent on the pastor for the guidance they need from God.

    My pastor set up me and my wife on 2 separate occasions. Rather than answer our questions directly, he had us research Scripture for ourselves, giving us a general “thataway” suggestion for focus. It eorked better than giving a direct answer.

    This doesn’t work for churches that don’t “go deep” into God’s Word, though.
    Twitter: joe_sewell

  • This is so helpful… I’m a “fixer” and someone with the “gift of prophecy” I tend to want to “cut to the chase” but I’ve learned that if I fix their problem it will probably break again, and if I tell them how to fix it, they rarely follow my advice and still hold it against me when not following my good advice doesn’t work-out for them… You’re a genius.
    Twitter: johnmarkharris

  • @mikemyatt says:

    Hi Ron:

    This is an excellent post and your advice is spot-on. Most leaders see themselves as problem solvers, but in many instances become problem enablers. It is important for leaders to overcome what I refer to as "hero leader syndrome." You might enjoy the following post as an addition to the thought stream: http://www.n2growth.com/blog/are-you-a-hero-leade

    Thanks Ron…

  • @aliadeta says:

    While I am an atheist, I agree with a lot of what you said. If you solve everything for everyone, it also doesn't teach them problem solving skills, which will also just worsen their problems when you're not there to help, because they're then lack that basic skill.

    • ronedmondson says:

      Thanks for commenting. While I would want you to agree with my spiritually, I would handle that the same way too. I wouldn't try to “talk you in” to something. It wouldn't be real.
      Twitter: Ronedmondson

  • That was a great perspective. I agree. The conviction will be higher when the person makes his own decision after considering all the relevant information in hand. But when we push up our idea, that person will not take ownership and it may fail in the end.

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