It actually takes three or four seconds to ask, “Do you have one second for a quick question?”
That should be your first warning.
The truly “quick question” needs no wind-up-- you just pop it: “Got change for a twenty?” “Going to the game tonight?” Those are fair quick questions, and they have quick answers.
But when the questioner needs to soften you up with a preface, there’s generally a reason for it-- he knows that even if the question may be quick, the answer won’t be. That’s bad enough. Worse, the questioner usually takes a positive answer as license to unfurl a conundrum worthy of the Senate. Your time is going to get robbed, and you know it.
For a professional, though, there is a far more sinister threat. More often than not you are being approached with the “quick question” because of your training and experience. Implicit in the “quick question” is that you will deliver an accurate professional opinion in an informal setting at no charge, but one upon which the questioner will rely to make some important decision.
If your advice works, nobody remembers-- it was a “quick question”. But if it doesn’t, you’ll be blamed. In fact, even if your advice was sound, but misapplied or misapprehended, you’ll still be blamed. Because of the informal setting you’ll likely have no record, and probably no recollection. The listener, of course, will have a clear recollection of what was said, what he thought was said, or at least what he wants to remember was said.
For professionals, there’s another problem with the “quick question”-- there is no such thing as a safe “quick answer”. If you don’t take the time to quiz the questioner to be sure he or she understands his or her problem, you may be giving an answer to a question he or she doesn’t even know he or she has. It will surely be misapplied, to your chagrin.
As a professional, you are going to see nuanced issues that the “quick questioner” probably doesn’t want to hear about. If your answer is complete, qualified and useful, it won’t be quick. If it isn’t complete, qualified and useful, you may as well hand over your wallet and throw your certificates out the window.
A greater abomination, the sinister bastard child of the "quick question" is the "quick question for a friend of mine". All of the evils mentioned here are about to be alloyed with hearsay, the outcome of which will be Shakespearean in dimension.
Given the time demand and professional risk inherent in the “quick question”, you should develop a “quick response”, tailored to your personal and professional circumstances, which politely, gently yet firmly requires the questioner to come into your professional zone. Whether or not you bill for your time is up to you, but at least insist that your professional advice is given in a professional setting.
Norman Bowley is a communicator by passion, a lawyer and educator by profession. Thirty-six years of legal practice after ten years as an educator have equipped Norm to teach professionals how to communicate effectively and with power.