What Did You Do? is a Bad Question

Brian Moran (blog | Twitter) did a great presentation today for the PASS Professional Development Virtual Chapter on The Art of Questions.  One of the points that Brian made was that there are good questions and bad (or at least not-as-good) questions.  Good questions tend to open-up the conversation and engender positive reactions (perhaps even trust and respect) between the participants; and bad questions tend to close-down a conversation either through the narrow list of possible responses (e.g. strictly Yes/No) or through the negative reactions they can produce.  And this explains why I so frequently had problems troubleshooting real-time problems with users in the past.  I’ll explain that in more detail below, but before we go on, let me recommend that you watch the recording of Brian’s presentation to learn why the question Why is often problematic in the U.S. and yet we so often resort to it.

For a short portion (3 years) of my career, I taught basic computer skills and Office applications in an adult vocational school, and this gave me ample opportunity to do live troubleshooting of user challenges with computers.  And like many people who ended up in computer related jobs, I also have had numerous times where I was called upon by less computer-savvy individuals to help them with some challenge they were having, whether it was part of my job or not.  One of the things that I noticed, especially during my time as a teacher, was that when I was helping somebody, typically the first question I would ask them was, “What did you do?”  This seemed to me like a good way to start my detective work trying to figure out what happened, what went wrong, how to fix it, and how to help the person avoid it again in the future.  I always asked it in a polite tone of voice as I was just trying to gather the facts before diving in deeper.  However; 99.999% of the time, I always got the same answer, “Nothing!”  For a long time this frustrated me because (remember I’m in detective mode at that point) I knew it could not possibly be true.  They HAD to have done SOMETHING…just tell me what were the last actions you took before this problem presented itself.  But no, they always stuck with “Nothing”.  At which point, with frustration growing, and not a little bit of disdain for their lack of helpfulness, I would usually ask them to move aside while I took over their machine and got them out of whatever they had gotten themselves into.  After a while I just grew used to the fact that this was the answer I would usually receive, but I always kept asking because for the .001% of the people who would actually tell me, I could then help them understand what went wrong and how to avoid it in the future.

Now, after hearing Brian’s talk, I understand what the problem was.  Even though I meant to just be in an information gathering mode, the words I was using, “What did YOU do?” have such a strong negative connotation that people would instinctively go into defense-mode and stop sharing information that might make them look bad.  Many of them probably were not even consciously aware that they had gone on the defensive, but the self-preservation instinct, especially self-preservation of the ego, is so strong that people would end up there without even realizing it.

So, if “What did you do” is a bad question, what would have been better?  Well, one suggestion that Brian makes in his talk is something along the lines of, “Can you tell me what led up to this?” or “what was happening on the computer right before this came up?”  It’s subtle, but the point is to take the focus off of the person and their behavior; instead depersonalizing it and talk about events from more of a 3rd-party observer point of view.  With this approach, people will be more likely to talk about what the computer did and what they did in response to it without feeling the interrogation spotlight is on them.  They are also more likely to mention other events that occurred around the same time that may or may not be related, but which could certainly help you troubleshoot a larger problem if it is not just user actions.  And that is the ultimate goal of your asking the questions.  So yes, it does matter how you ask the question; and there are such things as good questions and bad questions.  Excellent topic Brian!  Thanks for getting the thinking gears churning!

(Cross-posted to the Professional Development Virtual Chapter blog.)

posted @ Wednesday, September 12, 2012 11:20 PM

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