Question Debugging

October 16, 2009

There isn’t much I dislike more than asking a question at a high level and getting an answer back that feels demeaning because the answerer explains everything to me from the ground up [without ever pausing to breathe or giving me an opportunity to say ‘Yeah, I know, move on’]. I typically already understand the details, or don’t care at this point, which is why it’s so frustrating (to me).

I hadn’t ever really thought [at least not too much] about how to solve this problem until I heard Matt verbalize it like this a couple months ago:

I first try to gauge where the person is, and try to respond at a similar level.  I also adjust the response as I get visual feedback from the person as they are listening to my response.


I have been acutely aware of a person’s inability to do this every time I ask a question ever since I heard Matt say this (Shoot!  Now I’m ruined!).

So here is how I try to debug your question (and you) so I don’t irk you off when you come to me with a question:

  • Think about the problem first.
  • Understand the problem/Be empathetic.
  • Assess where you are in the solution space of the problem, so I can give an answer in a neighborhood relevant to you.
  • Start trying to help solve the problem.
  • Be clear and specific.
  • Change my response based on any feedback I’m receiving from you (verbal or otherwise).
  • Respond with help that leads you into the pit of success.

I’ve come up [involuntarily… sorry, just something I do] with a list of don’ts when I ask you a question as well:

  • Don’t blow me away with your superior knowledge/expertise/arrogance/cockiness/awesomeness.  I already know you’re awesome… that’s why I asked you!
  • Don’t drown me with inane details.
  • Don’t be condescending.
  • Don’t be vague.
  • Don’t pretend to know if you don’t.  (Hint: I can tell when you don’t!)
  • Don’t yell at me, or yell about someone/something else, or go off the hook for some other reason. Not cool.

Reflecting over those two lists, looks like the moral of the story: Be a good listener, be resepectful, don’t be an a-hole. Sounds about right 😉

Do you run into this (or think about it)? How do you try to solve it (from both sides of the question)?