Friday, December 11, 2015

Questioning skills



In my last piece on memory I was talking about the importance of asking questions.  At every training course I've ever attended, we've always been told "there's no such thing as a stupid question".

Yes, of course ANY question is better than no question at all.  But consider this ... someone is getting frustrated because of a Google search or an SQL database search because they aren't getting the answers they need.  Our first port of call will always be "what are you asking about?".

In an almost yin and yang symbiosis, how you ask a question plants the seeds for the answer you'll receive.  The more I thought about my previous post, the more importance I could see in giving good thought to the questions you need to ask.

For myself, my exposure to peer conferences have made me think a lot about the questions I ask.  I was initially quite well know within Wellington for asking a lot of questions.  This included in my first fortnight being sent to a product demo and being sidelined by the CEO afterwards ... I'd asked so many questions the vendor had felt grilled, when in reality I was there to support them as part of a partner organisation.

I like to consider with questions that I only have a finite number of them, and to try and use them wisely.  I try to check my ego and remove questions which are there more to serve my ego, things like "well, I would never let myself be put into that position myself" or correct a speaker on a trivial point.

Open questions

I've also learned to use more open questions, over ones which can be answered in a quick "yes/no".

I was talking to a graduate the other week, and I very nearly asked them the question "do you know what's expected of you in your sprint team?".  I know the graduate would have answered yes regardless, and the worst thing I could have done would at that point to go "cool ... that's covered then".

Instead I asked them "tell me what you think is expected of you in your sprint team", and this allowed me to see what duties he understood well, as well as to discuss some additional point he might want to be mindful of.

Leading questions

Questions can also be really dangerous if you ask the wrong ones.  There are some questions which are phrased in such ways that people will find themselves automatically responding to them a certain way, even when they are aware it's a lie.

This happened to me last week at the physiotherapist.  I've recently injured my shoulder in the gym, although I've previously dislocated it about 10 years ago in Rugby a couple of times.  This has caused me to need therapy and even an ultrasound scan.

The scan shows some abnormalities, and one explanation is cartilage damage - but that would be most likely if I'd partially dislocated or "subluxed" my shoulder.  My physio asked me "are you sure you didn't feel the joint come out at all?".

Sitting in her office, I found myself going "well it was a few months ago ... and I can't remember properly ,,, I suppose it might have".  This is real dangerous ground when you're trying to recall, because your brain is quite suggestive, and as we've talked about, this can lead to your mind "adding this detail to your memory".

Thankfully before polluting my recollection with a new "made up memory" (see this post for how easy it is), I realised that I have dislocated and subluxed my shoulder several times in the distant past (prior to this injury) - I know intimately how it feels.  If it had happened, I'd have gone home to my wife and said "honey, I've partially dislocated my shoulder again" over "I pulled something at the gym".

Likewise, there are some questions which we're so hardwired to answer a certain way.  From my physio it's "you are still doing your recovery exercises, aren't you?".  When someone asks you a question and adds "aren't you?", it's quite a stretch to reply anything other than "yes".

I have to think very hard when she asks me that question - because I've been given a lot of exercises over the last couple of months, and I'm doing some of them, but not all of them (as some have gone out of vogue as I've recovered).  So I make a point of telling her what I'm doing - occasionally there's something I'm forgetting to do.

Expanding information with the use of the 5 whys ...


I used to work with a lady named Julia Baker at Kiwibank who would tell me that the key to being a good business analyst was asking good questions, and getting people to elaborate their answers.  I asked around some of the business analysts I work with at Datacom about their opinion on "what makes a good question", and they came back with ...

BA's don't dictate the solution, they ask open questions and let others do the talking, steering the conversation as needed.

The main questioning skill I’d use is the toddler technique (as I like to call it) or the five whys.  It’s an actual thing. - but is geared towards problem solving. It can be used for requirements gathering and analysis too though.

People often think in solutions. By asking them why they want something, and then asking why to their answer (and again and again) you’ll eventually get to the root of their requirement and can then build up to a solution. Hence the toddler part. The trick is not being annoying and asking open ended questions that get people to answer why, without you just saying why all the time.

It’ll go a little something like,

  • I want a report (Why?)
  • To be able to see how many sales we’ve made this month (Why?)
  • So I can put it in my sales spreadsheet (Why?)
  • So I can track all the sales across all months (Why?)
  • So I can report yearly sales to the directors at the end of the year.


It is a pretty lame one, but the key is that the real requirement isn’t a report about just one month, it is giving a different set of data to a group of people. While we can meet that initial requirement, we provide real value by uncovering what is under that final requirement and meeting that instead. Sometimes it is widely different to the solution they came up with first.

Johanna Rothman's take


My previous blog post took about 6 weeks to write, I kept having to explore ideas, perform Google searches, ask around friends and watch Back To The Future.

As well as using it as an opportunity to ask around my team and find their opinion on the subject, I took time to talk to management consultant Johanna Rothman about it.  Her answer together with my conversation with our business analysts helped give me a push.

Here's her response ...

(When it comes to type of questions to ask)  There are these questions from which to choose:

  • meta question:  questions about the situation (sometimes considered "questions about other questions")
  • closed questions: data-based questions
  • open questions: questions that require an extensive answer.
  • rhetorical questions: questions that don’t need an answer


Here are questions I would ask myself:

  1. Where and when am I?
  2. What do I want to have happen?
  3. Can I achieve that goal, given my current location/time?
  4. If not, what should I do to see what I can achieve?

I particularly love this short ruleset, which links in with my learning of asking questions in peer conferences - is the question relevant, what would the answer give me/the audience, can it be answered given the expertise in the room?


And finally

Sadly rhetorical questions are my downfall.  I'll sometimes have a disagreement with my partner as couples often do.  When your partner is annoyed that you're not answering them, responding with "how do I answer ... you're asking me a rhetorical question".  Whilst that may be the case, it almost always leads to this - so beware, because it seems no-one likes a smart-ass.

2 comments:

  1. Mike, you are so generous to me. Thank you.

    I *loved* the video. My husband learned very early about gifts, and I can say he has never given me a gift that landed him in the doghouse.

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