‘Or’ considered harmful

Asking questions isn’t as easy as it seems

You’d think that asking questions is easy. Most of us have been doing it since we’re small children. Why is it that most people (me included) are so bad at it?

Nowadays, we start many of our conference sessions and training courses with an interviewing exercise. The exercise is very simple:

  • Participants work in triads and rotate through the three roles
    • Interviewer asks questions
    • Interviewee answers questions
    • Observer notes what is being done and said. The observer is also the referee who checks that the other two players follow the role.
  • We set a topic that is known by the interviewee and not known by the interviewer. For example, the current or previous project of the interviewee. That actually makes the game easier. It’s harder to play the game if you know the interviewee or what they’re talking about.
  • During a short timebox (a few minutes), the interviewer asks questions. Only three types of questions are allowed:
    • Open questions allow the interviewee to tell their story. Questions like “What does your company do?”, “What project are you working on?” or “What does your product do?” are good opening open questions. The best open question is “Can you give me an example?”
    • Control questions let the interviewee fill in the facts of the story. Questions like “How many people work on the project?”, “How long is the project expected to run?” or “Where do you work?” allow the interviewer to get to the data behind the story.
    • Confirmation questions let the interviewer check that they understood the interviewee. “If I’ve understood correctly, <restate what you heard in your own words>. Am I right?”. If you get a “Yes” answer, you can go on to the next part of the interview. If you get a “No” answer, you can ask the logical next Open question: “Can you tell me what I missed?”

It’s a fun game. You can download the instructions and a cheat sheet from the Agile Coach site. The game is based on the “Nine Boxes” technique from Solution Selling.

It’s too hard!

The feedback from the players and our observations show one thing: this is too hard! Interviewers have trouble following the rules and observers don’t have the courage to interrupt the interviewer when they don’t follow the rules.

In those few cases where we have someone who can actually ask questions in this format, the interviewees always remark how they feel that the interviewer really understood them. Usually, the interviewee gets some new insights.

It is hard, but it’s worth it.

How not to ask questions (a non-exhaustive list)

  • Closed questions push the interviewee in a corner where they can only answer Yes or No. It’s really hard to get useful information using only boolean answers. Typical conversations go like “Is it X? No. Is it Y? No. Is it Z? No!!!” If you like to fish, go to a lake.
  • Leading questions (or even better, Entrapment questions) lead the interviewee to give the answer the interviewer wants to get. “When have you stopped beating your wife?” is a classic example.
  • Discourses disguised as questions allow the interviewer to speech on their favourite subject. Sometimes they even add a closed question at the end. By then nobody knows what the question is about. The goal is to let the interviewer talk more than the interviewee. I don’t know why, but I associate this type of question with university professors or inhouse gurus.
  • Rethorical questions don’t really expect an answer, they have a point to make. “Are you going out wearing that?”. “Well… Maybe I’d better not. What do you recommend?”

My favourite most hated type of question (and one I use and hear too often) is the Pretend Open question. The typical form is like this: “Is it X or Y (and here the interviewer remembers they should ask open questions) OR…?” You can just hear the trailing dots. The question is long, unclear and weak. Advanced users will introduce many OR options, so as to maximize their airtime.

Help me get better

If you hear me ask any question that doesn’t fit the Open/Control/Confirm format, please correct me.

So, what did you think of this blog entry? Was it useful or just a reminder of something you already do or something you can’t use or….? Are you getting annoyed yet? Oops!

And it gets harder

Another observation from the game: hearing and seeing is also very hard. When we ask the observers to tell us what they heard and saw, we ask them to only answer with “I saw…” or “I heard…”. Most observers answer with “I think…” or “I feel…”.

When we teach people to interview and observe they “rediscover the lessons they learned as children but have since forgotten“. Maybe we should hire children as business analysts and consultants. For them all of this is natural.

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