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.