How to get useful answers to your questions

Often when you ask a vague or underspecified question, one of these happens:

  • The person starts by explaining a bunch of stuff you already know.
  • The person explains some things which you don’t know, but which you don’t think are relevant to your problem
  • The person starts giving a relevant explanation but using terminology that you don’t understand, so you still end up being confused.

Here are a few question-asking tactics to get your required answers.

Ask yes/no questions

The best thing about asking yes/no questions is that there’s a much lower chance that the person answering will go off on an irrelevant tangent – they’ll almost always say something useful to you.

It’s often possible to come up with yes/no questions even when discussing a complicated topic. You’ll notice that some of those questions are “check my understanding” questions which will ensure that your knowledge on the given topic was right or not. Besides, yes/no questions get you answers faster because they’re relatively easy to answer.

State your current understanding

State your understanding of how the system works. You’ll find the process of writing down your understanding will clarify your thoughts. Sometimes by the time you’re done, you’ve answered your question.

Stating your understanding is a kind of yes/no question – “this is my understanding of how X works, is that right or wrong?” Often the answer is going to be “right in some ways and wrong in others,” but even so, it makes the job of the answerer a lot easier.

Be willing to interrupt

If someone goes off on a very long explanation that isn’t helping you at all, it’s important to interrupt them. This can feel rude, but ultimately it’s more efficient for everyone – it’s a waste of both their time and yours. Interrupt by asking a more specific question because usually, if someone has gone off on a long irrelevant explanation, it might be because you asked an overly vague question to start with.

Don’t accept responses that don’t answer your question

If someone finishes a statement that doesn’t answer your question, it’s important not to leave it there! Keep asking questions! A couple of ways you can do this:

  • Ask a much more specific question (like a yes/no question) that’s in the direction of what you actually wanted to know.
  • Ask them to clarify some terminology you didn’t understand (what’s an X?).

Take a minute to think

Sometimes, when asking someone a question, people will tell new information that’s really surprising. You need to stop and think about the implications of that and other questions you had based on that new piece of information. When this happens, say something like, “wait, that’s surprising to me, let me think for a minute,” and try to incorporate the new data and come up with another question.

It takes a little bit of confidence

All of these things – being willing to interrupt, not accepting responses that don’t answer your questions, and asking for a minute to think – require a little bit of confidence! Always remember that:

  • People usually want to help even if their first explanation was full of confusing jargon.
  • If you can get even one useful piece of information by the end of the conversation, it’s a victory.

A common assumption is that the people answering the questions are ‘Super Smart Perfect People,’ and you’re probably wasting their time with your dumb questions. But in reality, your coworkers answering the questions are probably smart well-meaning people who want to help but aren’t always able to answer questions very clearly, so you need to ask follow-up questions to get answers.

How to give useful answers

There’s also a lot you can do to try not to be the person who goes off on a long explanation that doesn’t help the person you’re talking to at all.

It’s especially important to check in if:

  1. You haven’t explained a concept before because your initial explanation will probably not be very good.
  2. You don’t know the person you’re talking to very well because you’ll probably make incorrect assumptions about what they know/don’t know.

Being good at extracting information is a superpower

Find someone who has the information you want and then asks them specific questions. It’s more effective to ask questions that will get you the answers you need. And if you get good at asking questions, you can often find a set of questions that will get you the answers you want pretty quickly, so it’s a good use of everyone’s time!

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