Answering questions with questions

There are two reasons why we shouldn't worry when someone answers our questions with more questions: most initial questions are sub optimal and follow on questions are important.

Answering questions with questions
Photo by Tingey Injury Law Firm / Unsplash
Stop answering my questions with questions.
How dare you?

On a few occasions I’ve seen someone make or imply this. To them I say “how dare you?” More seriously, there are two reasons this statement doesn’t make sense:

  1. Most initial questions are not optimal.
  2. Follow on questions are important.

Sub-optimal questions

When a question first pops into my mind, it often doesn’t make sense. Either it's not fully formed or it’s a question I already know the answer to. A while back I was looking at metrics used in testing. This made me ask “what are some of the best testing metrics?” If I posed this question to others, I’d get lots of varied responses including “none” and that’s not much use.

Still, I wanted to ask some version of the question. I began optimizing the question for better, more specific answers. To do this I asked myself follow on questions like: what’s my goal? What would I do if this metric went up or down? Is this a metric someone could game? Then I came up with a more specific and useful question:  “what’s a metric or assessment technique you’ve used for understanding how much testing work is left?”

Follow on questions

Follow on questions ask for more information and gather more context. Asking for more insight gives clues into motivation and the call of the question. The person receiving the question(s) gets confirmation they are being heard (which I find to be more valuable in a world of text). Naturally inquisitive people like myself get a lot out of follow on questions.

There is an art form to asking good questions. Good questions come with the practice of asking and answering questions and using follow on questions to optimize.

To have productive conversations we need to be able to ask enough questions to engage, learn and respond. Otherwise we end up in shallow conversations and not understanding one another.

For further reading I suggest the Surprising Power of Questions, Relearning the art of asking questions, and my friend James Thomas's post on Meet Me Halfway.

The Association for Software Testing is crowd-sourcing a book, Navigating the World as a Context-Driven Tester, which aims to provide responses to common questions and statements about testing from a context-driven perspective.

It's being edited by Lee Hawkins who is posing questions on Twitter,  LinkedIn,  Slack, and the AST mailing list and then collating the replies, focusing on practice over theory. This was my reply.

Subscribe to Shattered Illusion by Chris Kenst

Sign up now to get access to the library of members-only issues.
Jamie Larson