Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Asking Questions

I think everyone should give some thought to the art of asking useful questions.

Perhaps the most useless form of question are one-syllable questions, like "How?", "Why?", or "What?", being quite so open-ended and ambiguous that it is entirely likely that the received reply, if any, would answer all but that which you desired to learn about. The sole exception is when your aim is not to learn something specific, but rather to gain insight from the way the question is interpreted.

It should therefore first be required that questions be more specific, or at least multi-syllabled. But even questions that appear specific can fail to be good questions. Situations can, and often, occur when the intent or context of the question is not understood. A seemingly simple question can have multiple answers, only one of which is most valid for a specific context. One might encounter such situations when a young child asks a straightforward question, for example, "Why are the police chasing that man?". One might have to estimate the level of intelligence or knowledge of the child when answering, "Because the man did bad things" may suffice for very young children, but is clearly insulting for an older child who of course knows this and merely wants to know the crime committed.

In the technical and academic arena (where I 'work') this problem is quite ever-present. Whenever a person asks a technical question, I have to determine the appropriate level of expertise of the questioner before answering. Some people desire only a general or intuitive overview, whereas others are more interested in the details. It is particularly hard to answer questions like "How do you do X?", especially if X consists of multiple parts, only one or a few of which are your major contributions. One has to quickly decide if interest is in the general entirety of X, or in the areas of new contribution.

But of course, one can always clarify the question, which also buys more time for the formulation of a response.

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