How to ask questions
Before we get into asking questions, let’s deal with something first — how to answer questions. This will be especially useful for people in senior and leadership roles.
RTFM is toxic and evil
The late 80’s to mid 90’s ‘Hacker” revolution started this toxic culture of gatekeeping that demanded the newcomers to “Read Those Fuc*ing Manuals” and “Search The Fuc*ing Web” before asking questions in forums, groups, chats and in electronic mails because apparently the “hackers” and “gurus” were too busy to answer n00b questions. In many ways “n00b” is a derogatory word that stamps “newbies” into an assumed below-average-skill-level group that not only laughably incorrect, but hinders the collective progress of a team in every possible way.
A common counter point is that “gurus” can be overwhelmed by answering the basic questions over and over — time that can be better spent in building. This particular straw-man has several evil assumptions. 1) People are lazy. 2) The questions that are apparent to you are “basic” questions, 3) Basic questions aren’t worth asking, 4) Your time is precious than someone who is new and struggling with something, 5) There is a hierarchy of talent within your group and there are certain rituals before one can interact with the top of the pyramid. Let’s discuss each of them individually.
- People aren’t lazy. If at all, they are much more worried about asking stupid questions than to not look up their questions in the interweb before sheepishly asking someone about a problem. Often the problems that we think have been answered many times before might be slightly different in case basis and chances are the asker hasn’t found a good answer after trying several different solutions. Rather than assuming this has been answered before, ask about the problem. Find out what is different in this particular problem than the generic solutions. If the solution is indeed easily accessible to everyone, the asker should have found it in the first place with minimal effort. Find out why that didn’t happen and what can be done to make this process better to eliminate the situation where this issue would even be an issue to have. This brings the second assumption.
- The issues that are apparent to you aren’t necessarily ‘basic’. You know the shoe you wear everyday everywhere? Yep, it smells. You can’t tell because you have nose blindness but others can, and they endure it. The stuff you deal with everyday are likely to be totally alien to someone who are just getting into it. But what if you’re being asked something truly basic, like how to find the mass of the Sun given the size of an average pocket square and mean alcohol consumption in the country of Wales? Find out how can you make this information available (on scale)? How about writing a how-to page? How about conducting a trips-and-tricks seminar for everyone? How about presenting these and other information available during the orientation? How about making a crash course on how to find any damn issue for your team?
- Basic questions often are the ones worth asking. What? Why? How? questions need to be asked over and over to always remain fresh. Wikis get stale, unchallenged canons turn irrelevant, we miss flaws in very foundational stuff. Assumptions, prejudices, and stereotypes are detrimental to a dynamic group. These are not a problem only exclusively related to vile racism but groups need to actively eliminate the culture of doing so in everything. Lack of assumption is a great asset in a person. The biggest problems occur when people assumed something and didn’t bother to ask wh- questions. Asking and answering basic questions are an important exercise to keep our processes grounded and fresh.
- If your 2 minutes is worth more than someone else’s hours in your group, either the group is severely mismanaged or you’re delusional. The person is in your group for a reason. If you can unblock someone struggling in a couple minutes, that is a massive impact on your part because you’ve just save the group hours worth of expensive work time. At this point, you’re an “Impact Multiplier”.
- If one has to perform some sort of a ritual to ask a question, your group is doomed to fail. As you make asking questions harder, you are breeding the culture of assumptions, mistrust, fear and under-productivity in your team. If your team waste time on problems that can be solved in minutes, who exactly is losing in this?
So, how to ask anyone anything?
Clearly and confidently — exactly like a child would.
- Clarity: The goal of asking a question is to get an effective answer as quickly as possible. The best way is to clearly stating your question — to yourself. The next step is to find a quickest platform where you have the biggest probability of getting the answer quickly. Do you think a quick search may give you some leads? Cool! Go for it. Can’t find anything useful? Don’t just suffer in silence! Move on to the next possible source. Ask someone! Fail fast! If someone can’t answer that, ask them to refer you to someone who can! Use six-degrees-of separation to reach to the right person — whoever that may be!
Think about a child — they ask clear cut questions to anyone that is directly involved with their point of confusion/issue! “Mum why the grass is green” has a profoundness that requires real skill to answer.
- Confidence: True confidence comes from preparation. No, I’m not going back to RTFM! Homework-before-questions is a myth. When we’re confused about something, more often than not we don’t even know what we don’t know. Failure to Google isn’t an offense! Go back to the first point of clarity — if you thought your question could be found faster by searching, you’d have obviously done that already. There is a reason you’re asking this to someone. Be confident. Prepare for this pushback “did you search this in xyz” type of remarks. State your intentions clearly — like a child! If you haven’t searched, say that. There’s no need to be ashamed. The goal is to get answers correctly and quickly; and if someone is being offended by you asking questions — that is entirely their problem. If you’re worried about annoying someone, do exactly what a child would do — ask them! Find out how can you get help better next time. Take that feedback objectively and if here is something you think you should improve, do it. If you think something wasn’t your fault, move on. Feedback is a gift but not everyday is Christmas.
If there is one takeaway form this article:
The problem is not that we have to learn how to ask questions, but we do not ask enough questions in the first place. We’re more worried that we’ll look stupid so much, that we’d rather waste time trying to move mountains by ourselves rather than asking somebody for help. It is a myth that you’ll have to know certain things or do your “homework” before asking questions. The most precious currency in the world is time. If we start prioritising time, while being compassionate to the world around us, everything else will start to fall in its place! The ‘being gracious’ part is extremely important. You can catch many flies with waste but to catch bees, you need to put out the honey.
Here’s a beautiful sketch of my favorite athlete Lewis Hamilton who is a major inspiration to me and a lot of people around the world to be fearless but gracious. Let’s all find our inner kids — the kid of that indomitable curiosity, razor-focused intent, and the blinding grace of that innocent wonder.
We take this adulting thing laughably seriously!