It feels like I’ve been a student of communication forever. The thing I tend to catch pretty easily – probably because it’s a pet peeve as much as it can be a professional liability – is when an answer to a question I’ve asked is nonresponsive. Politicians are great at that: telling an interviewer whatever sound bites they want repeated, rather than actually answering the question that was asked. People who aren’t big fans of direct communication or who simply have their own reasons for avoiding the truth are good at it, too.
I thought of Sifu as good at being nonresponsive, after our communication catastrophe earlier in the year, which effectively ended with a demand for my silence. But after six months of squelching my natural impulse to simply ask for the information I want, an overflowing class of first-timers on Saturday compelled me to offer to teach again at the guan and ask Sifu if he’d allow it. If ever there were a time to call in the teaching cavalry, it would have been with Saturday’s motley crew; so I was surprised and upset not to have been tapped.
When I first read his emailed response, all I could see was this: “I appreciate the offer to help. But it’s not necessary at this time.” You didn’t answer my question! I thought. But I received the email right before having to give my attention to a group of friends for a couple of hours. The time spent not thinking about the nonresponsive nature of his answer was a godsend. For when I reread the exchange later in the evening, I saw more than I had upon initial reading.
He’d also told me that he understood I was willing to help and would keep me in mind in the future. I was still a possible substitute somewhere down the line. I just didn’t know when. He might not know either.
So what’s the big deal, one may ask? The episode made me wonder if I need to reconsider what constitutes nonresponsive. Perhaps questions of mine that I think have a definitive black or white answer actually don’t. Maybe instead of yes or no, the honest answer is I don’t know. Maybe the question itself isn’t as clear as I think it should be to the reader or listener. Maybe, just maybe, I misread or misinterpret the answer simply because it doesn’t contain what I want it to.
Sifu may have just been letting me down easy. I have no way to know. But the questions his answer made me ask myself were a worthwhile lesson for this student of communication.