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Why Are You Asking Me This Question?

Filed Under Architecture, Personal Improvement

Imagine this, your boss walks up to you and asks, “You said the code could run on both Windows or Linux, right?” Do you say…

A) Yes
B) Yes, but not without some changes
C) Why do you need to know?

For some reason, people are offended when people answer a question with another question; however, it is my belief that unless the question was given in great detail the answer may not be 100% correct (or correct at all for that matter).

A bad habit most developers have (myself included) is to be hasty in responses by non-developers. Rip off your headphones, respond in the most terse answer, put headphones back on, and turn back to your screen. Regardless if you are being disrupted, or you are having a bad day, here is why you want to engage most questions with another question:

Hidden Agendas Are Revealed

First and absolutely foremost, asking the question why is a defensive move. More times then not, when people ask questions in a vague, hurried, or terse manner it is to hide or cover the real question they are attempting to answer. And why are they hiding these details? Most of the time it is because they don’t want to know the real answer to the question, they want to validate the answer they most want whether it is the truth or not.

Asking them why slows them down and causes them to validate themselves. Most importantly, it removes you as the scapegoat. After all, the developers said we could…

Shows Interest In The Problem

Engaging in a meaningful conversation is perceived as high value activity to others because it shows sincere interest in helping them to solve their problems. As a result, you will be perceived as a high value employee because of your interest.

You Become A Valued Team Player

If you are perceived as a high value employee because of how you interact with the team, it only leads to believe that you will become a valued team player. Valued team players are generally liked and as a result promoted…and all because you answered questions with questions.

Answering questions with questions is only perceived poorly by those who are attempting to hide something whether it is illegal, immoral, stupid, or their own ignorance. Overcome all of these pitfalls by taking the time out to dig deeper and provide real helping hand.

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8 Responses to “Why Are You Asking Me This Question?”

  1. Francis on May 26th, 2009 3:15 am

    A conversation needs to converge to a conclusion. If you keep answering questions with questions and the other person is doing the same you end up with nothing (apart from the fact that it is hilarious)

    A good approach is therefore to give an answer and then ask the question, that way you get somewhere.

    i.e. You might say: the system supports both platforms but only under certain conditions … why are you asking this question.

  2. Max Pool on May 26th, 2009 7:10 am

    @Francis –

    Sorry if I wasn’t clear, yes, of course you obviously to answer the question 😉

    The reason why I don’t use your approach is because it gives away your answer and allows an opprotunity for somebody to simply say “because” or “never mind” and walk away. It immediately puts the power back in their hands which they may misuse…

  3. Mike on May 26th, 2009 11:23 am

    As someone that usually defaults to option C, I can certainly confirm that people are often offended if you answer a question with “Why do you need to know?”

    I seem to have better luck giving people a quick answer, but then following it up with “…but it depends on the exact circumstances. Can you give me more details?”

    That way, people don’t feel like you are blocking them, since you provided information right off the bat, but you still get to the bottom of whatever nefarious uniformed decision that they are planning on making.

  4. Max Pool on May 26th, 2009 11:42 am

    @Mike –

    Very good point.

  5. CarolP on May 26th, 2009 12:34 pm

    “Why do you ask?” is a better phrasing than “Why do you need to know?” Less accusatory and less turfy sounding. Unless the information really is something that requires need-to-know authorization, that is.

    It’s all in how you phrase the response…

  6. Max Pool on May 26th, 2009 12:43 pm

    @CarolP –

    Another good point!

  7. SteveJ on May 28th, 2009 8:37 am

    You still have to be careful here with option C. The key is paying attention to the question, noting the details, but not getting caught up in them. A great many devs, including myself, are prone to taking tangents. Here’s a common conversation:

    Person 1) How do I do X?
    Person 2) Why do you want to do X?
    1) Well, first A happened, then B, C….
    2) Extremely long winded response about why C was the less than optimal choice for this situation.
    1) Ok, well that was six months ago. Since then D, E, F…W.
    2) Interrupts several more times.

    At this point Person 1 is defensive and doesn’t really want to talk to #2 ever again. Which is what you want to avoid. Being avoided by your boss and coworkers pays off in the short term, but then you start to notice you have no idea what’s going on.

  8. Robz on June 5th, 2009 8:36 am

    I’m all about asking questions. Some people say I ask too many questions. 😀

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