You aren’t asking enough questions

I’m a firm believer in asking questions, and I credit a lot of that to the company I work for and their values. I recently saw an intern get a job by asking one good question. What was the question? Well, that’s a good question 😉.

Recently, I evaluated myself, I looked for factors that I thought might hinder me from moving upward in the company. A realization I had was that if someone were to ask me 40 good questions a day for 12 weeks, they’d probably learn a majority of the information I would expect for someone seeking my job (I’m 2 years in). Each time I found something that might stop me from promoting me, I looked for a deeper problem, and then a solution. And that solution almost always ended up being to ask more questions. For example:

Problem: Not doing enough code review.
Real problem: Overwhelmed or intimidated by reviewing large chunks of code.
Solution: Look for a developer who is good at code review and read their review. Ask them about their process.

Why don’t we ask more questions?

I often do a poor job of asking questions, but you know who doesn’t seem to have a problem asking questions? Children. There are some crazy numbers out there that say 4 year olds ask over 450 questions a day (I doubt this is accurate, but if you’ve been around a child, you know it’s not far off). So why did we stop when we became “adults”? I blame to two frequently referenced concepts. The Curse of Knowledge and Imposter Syndrome. 😱

The curse of knowledge is a cognitive bias that occurs when an individual, communicating with other individuals, unknowingly assumes that the others have the background to understand.
Imposter syndrome is a concept describing individuals who are marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a “fraud”.

When people ask us questions about things we already know, its common for us brush off the question and [often implicitly] shame the asker. The Curse of Knowledge has caused us to assume everyone knows the answer to that question.

When considering asking a question, we worry that we should already know the answer or that we will be found out as unqualified for our current position. In a world that values self-starters so highly, we feel unsuccessful showing vulnerabilities. We get worried people will identify us as imposters. We ask fewer questions we have been conditioned [insert shamed] into asking fewer questions.

The benefits of asking more questions

Its important to note that the intent behind questions is important. Asking a judgemental question (“Why don’t you just X?” or “Wouldn’t it be easier if you just did X?”) can be a demotivator to the one being interrogated. Asking a learning-focused question (“What would happen in situation X?” or “Can you help me understand X?) is a critical approach that encourages growth on both sides. Being judgemental puts the recipient on the defensive, while seeking to learn inclines the recipient to be creative and descriptive.

Assuming you’re asking the right questions, the benefits are huge. Here are a few:

  • You learn a lot (duh)
  • You encourage others to think critically about their work.
  • You encourage others to ask questions.
  • Show that you are a learner

Questions from other people can:

  • Help you identify gaps in your own knowledge.
  • Help you identify candidates seeking to grow.

Some questions you can be asking

Let’s first identify a good question. A good question provides the context of my knowledge of the situation, communicates the gaps in my knowledge, and is considerate of the other’s time. Things like being considerate of another’s time is a skill that requires some experience, so err on the side of asking questions too frequently with the disclaimer “Please tell me if I’m asking too many questions”.

THEN LISTEN. If you don’t listen to the response, and verify your understanding of it, you’re wasting everyone’s time.

When answering questions you should ask yourself:

  • Am I being vague or waving my hands at some “magic”? This could indicate a gap in your own knowledge, and an opportunity for growth.
  • Did you use “Curse [of Knowledge]” words? ‘Just’, ‘simply’, ‘basically’, etc.
  • Did you brush off a question as pointless or dumb?
  • Did you verify understanding by the interrogator?

So what was the question asked earlier? “What do I need to do to get a job here?” This led to encouragement to ask more questions in order to grow. This person grew tremendously, constantly asking technical questions and seeking feedback in order to become better display growth.

Asking good questions benefits everyone, so let’s all start asking more questions. Stop allowing yourself to be shamed into asking fewer questions and help everyone to grow.