It is an incredibly valuable skill to be able to answer a question that you’re asked. It’s an equally valuable skill to be able to identify the one you aren’t asked and get to the root of that, too. In my experience, people are pretty bad at both.
When you ask someone a question, their brain often does a wild series of acrobatics. They hear the question in a superficial sense, but they run it through filters of what they wish you’d asked, what they want to say anyway, what they assume about why you’re asking, what they assume about you as a person, etc. Sometimes this makes their answer seem wildly unconnected to the question you asked, especially (as is often the case) if one or more of their acrobatic assumptions was incorrect.
But as bad as people are at answering questions, lots of people are equally bad at asking them, so it’s not as though you can always get maximum conversational efficiency by answering the literal question asked.
Here are some of my rules of thumb: The more organic the conversation, the more you should try to answer exactly and only what was asked, and the more you should try to ask only and exactly what you want answered. Conversely, the more “ritualized” the conversation (i.e. a job interview), the more you should pay attention to what information the other party really wants, but may not be able to ask directly.
For example, an interviewer might ask you to tell them about a time you dealt with a difficult coworker in the past, but that’s not what they want to know. What they want to ask is: “Are you a huge jerk, or will you be cool to work with?” They can’t ask that question though, so they ask the proxy. But you should answer in such a way that tells them “I’m not a jerk.”
Another rule is that when you’re asking a question, it often helps to explain why. Clear away some of the anticipated mental gymnastics by giving your reasons – and be clear and honest. You have to respect the other person, of course – don’t say, “I’m going to answer a question, and I want you to just answer what I’m asking you and don’t inject a lot of other BS like you always do.” Remember, the goal is communication! But you can say “I know this will sound like an odd question, but humor me – what is the exact timeline for this project?”
Your goal is to avoid asking “what’s the timeline for this project” and getting an answer like “Well, Jim says this is top priority, so I know you think we should be moving in another direction but the way things have been going upstairs I think Mary is going to be mad so…”
And OH MY LORD I just wanted you to say “a week.”
So did everyone else – so try to answer what was asked.