Friday, 19 April 2013

Getting a straight answer

10 characteristics of good question answerers:

I’ve been writing a letter of reference for a former colleague (I’ll call him ‘Robert.’)  One of the things I wanted to try to explain was that ‘he’s good at answering questions.’  This sounded vague, but it is a difficult concept to clarify.  So I started to think about what it means, exactly, to be a good question answerer. 

train station, Santander
I’ve had quite a bit of experience with asking questions recently; it comes with the territory when living abroad.  Moving to a different country is like starting a new job or a new school –– you need to learn 'how things work around here.'  So, you find yourself with an endless list of questions, and one of the first things you need to establish is who to ask.  You don’t always have a choice; for example, you're pretty much stuck with whoever is at the train ticket window when your number comes up.  Either you get the information you need, or you become frustrated, give up, and call Corin.  (He has an app for that).  

Of course, working in a second or additional language adds another layer of difficulty, but it doesn’t change the basic premise:  Some people are better than others at answering questions. 

I was reminded of a conversation I had a few months ago with a friend (I’ll call her ‘Hilary.’) She had just started a new career as a teacher at a school for special needs children, and she said that whenever support staff had a procedural question, they came to her, even though she is the most junior and least experienced of all the faculty.  She couldn’t understand this; my immediate conclusion, however, was that people instinctively recognize in her the quality of being good at answering questions. 

I pointed out to Hilary that in any job I’ve had, there was usually no correlation between how long a colleague had been doing the job and how likely I was to ask that person a question about the job.  Instead, I’ve tried to sense, or discover by trial and error, who is most likely to answer in a thinking, sensible, way.   

So in an effort to further elucidate this quality, I’ve come up with the following ten characteristics of good question answerers:

1.  They listen carefully and ask relevant follow up questions if needed.   

2.  They know when an answer requires further elaboration.  For example, if the question is about where to get supplies, and if getting supplies first requires a form to be filled out and signed by the boss, they will tell you that, even though you didn't ask about a form.  
However ....

3.  They don’t use the question as a springboard to show off what they know.  In most situations, when a person asks a question, they are looking for a specific piece of information, not a story.  

Rainy day and out of gas on Mull!
4.  They understand why the question is being asked and provide you with the information you need, which may not necessarily be the answer to your question.   For example: On the Isle of Mull, at 5 p.m. on a Sunday, my friend and I ran out of petrol.  We asked a local man where the closest petrol station was.  Instead of giving us the answer, which would have been useless, he said ‘they’re all closed.’ This man, then, was a good question answerer because he didn’t answer the question!  He knew it was the wrong question.  Instead, he gave us what we needed (a gallon of petrol to get back to our campsite!)

5.  They don’t make you feel inferior for your lack of knowledge.  Good question answerers understand that different people know different things; everyone has ‘pockets of knowledge.’   I’ve found that people who imply that your question is foolish are often trying to deflect attention away from the fact that they don’t know the answer. 

6.  They consider their audience and answer at the appropriate level.  They take into account what the asker already knows about the topic, what they need to know, and how much information would be too much.  For example, how was the Grand Canyon  formed?  Imagine how you might explain this differently for (a) an 8 year old, (b) an adult, or (c) a student in a geology class.   

7.  When they don’t know the answer, they say so; they don’t prevaricate.  There’s nothing worse than asking a direct question and getting a reply that goes on and on but never answers the question.   A good question answerer will say 'I don't know, but here's how we can find out.'  

8.  They don’t patronize.  When students ask a question related to course content or procedures, teachers often ask ‘leading’ questions to enable the students to think through the problem and find the solution themselves.  But this is a teaching strategy, useful for building confidence and independent thinking in students.  Used outside of a teaching context, it is patronizing. 

Gina at the International College of Seville
9.  They are friendly and helpful.  They smile at you, giving the impression that they are happy you asked the question.  They embrace the role of helper, rather than just answerer.  For example, if there is a series of steps to follow, they explain them.  If there are potential pitfalls or 'knock-on effects', they point them out.  If the answer is ‘no’, they suggest alternatives.  

10.  They understand the difference between real questions and rhetorical questions, or requests disguised as questions.  This is particularly difficult in a second or additional language because the subtle cues that signal ‘real’ versus ‘rhetorical’ don’t necessarily translate.  They can even be different between cultures that use the same language, something I was reminded of a few years ago on a British Airways flight from Orlando to London.  A flight attendant asked me with a big smile ‘would you like to close your window shade for take off?’  The expression on her face when I said ‘no, thanks’ was priceless.  I’d been away from England so long I'd forgotten the classic rule of British politeness:  Always word requests to make it appear you are giving the other person an option.  Unfortunately, if the other person doesn’t know the rules and thinks they really do have an option, you are a bit stuck!

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