Anatomy of a Good Question

Another thing we learned in my peer mentoring class was that there are such things as stupid questions.

That sounds bad, but let's look at that: what constitutes a stupid question? Well, if you flip it around, what constitutes a good question? A good question is one in which the person asking the question has really thought the question through, they've tried to answer it themselves, and they have a good grasp on what they're asking - they've put some effort into the formulation of the question. So, then, a stupid question is when the person asking doesn't think at all about the question, they just blast it out there.

What shows me that you've thought about a question? That's different for different people, but when you ask me a question, especially if it involves me having to stop what I'm doing to answer, here's what I want to know:
  • Priority: Is this super-urgent, or are you just asking out of curiosity? If it's not crisis level and I'm busy, maybe you should save it for later.
  • Time To Answer: How long do you think it's going to take me to answer? More than two or three minutes (from the time you start asking the question to the time I finish answering) and you might want to block off some time in Outlook.
  • Concise Description of Problem: Can you ask the question in one or two sentences (including enough context to make the problem understandable)? If not, stop and think through what you're asking.
  • What You Expect: What are you looking for from me? Advice? A technical direction? Just someone to vent to?
  • Who Else You Asked: If you asked other people the question first, are they still working on it? Did they give you any additional information?
  • What You've Done: What have you done already to try to answer the question yourself?
  • When You Need It: Do I have to answer right now or can I get back to you?

Much of this goes hand in hand with the use of correct communication protocol. If you bug a person too much and/or in the wrong fashion, you're not going to get a great response.

I'll also throw out two more tips, specifically for people asking me questions:
  • Do not start your question with "I have a quick question." I'll determine if it's quick or not based on the amount of time you think you need. Instead, try "I have a one-minute question" or "I have a two-minute question." Make sure your time estimate is accurate - don't say you have a two-minute question if it's a fifteen-minute question. Don't tell me you need one minute when you really need five.
  • Do not show up and drop your laptop on my desk. I know you may want me to review some code or look at something. The fact that you had to bring your laptop over already tells me you're over the one-or-two-minute limit on drop-in questions and you need to schedule some time in Outlook. Nothing is more frustrating than "*bam* Hey, can you look at this?" Seriously.

I think I'm going to try this out on a larger scale. If folks at work have questions, I'm happy to answer them, as long as they're good questions.

posted on Thursday, April 06, 2006 11:12 AM | Filed Under [ General Ramblings ]

Comments

Gravatar # Re: Anatomy of a Good Question
by Hawthorn at 4/7/2006 2:15 PM
I work with Travis and I want to post a snippet of one of his emails.

I believe that the way this was handled was perfect, he spent some time addressing my email, bouncing back points that were unclear and at the end he had this:

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As always, I am happy to answer questions, but if it will require more than two or three minutes, you'll be better off scheduling some time in Outlook. My calendar is open, but I do like prep time if there's a larger issue at stake.

Other tips to get your questions answered in a way that will be timely and helpful to you:

My interaction preferences: http://www.paraesthesia.com/blog/comments.php?id=983_0_1_0_C

Anatomy of a good question: http://www.paraesthesia.com/blog/comments.php?id=987_0_1_0_C
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There are always going to be people who wither refuse or are unable to change the way they interact with you. I personally believe that most people will be willing to improve their communication skills if you approach them in a firm, but no threatening manner.

Help me, to help you. It’s a powerful concept and one I think most people will be receptive to.
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