Thoughtful Q&A

15 Jan 2020  John  7 mins read.

Thoughtful Q&A

If you want to learn how to conduct fruitful deliberations, then you need to master the techniques of thoughtful Q&A.

We learn by asking questions…

Often times, what we learn has very little to do with the question that we asked…

We also learn by being asked questions, and what we learn is often far removed from the subject of the question…

An example…

Consider the following exchange on Quora :

Question and Answer

Learning from the question…

Quora is an online forum for asking and answering questions, so given the context of the question What makes a question a GOOD question? we can infer that the questioner wants to be popular on the site.

Our inference about the questioner’s motivations is reinforced by drilling down into the comments and finding Do some questions invite response more so than others? Why? What makes a question either uninteresting or a dud?

We’ve “learned” that the questioner’s “other” questions will probably not be primarily motivated by a desire to learn something - they’ll likely be motivated by a desire to increase their own social score on Quora. That’s neither a good thing or a bad thing, but it is something that will influence us in the future when we decide whether or not to respond.

Learning from the answer…

Within the Quora answer, there’s this statement: And this is all very relative. Through I think that even God has a lot of questions (and he/she/it/they might be finding answers in our existence).

This statement diverges from the stated question and gives us insights into the values and beliefs of the answerer. We can infer from the statement that the answerer is driven by their spiritual beliefs, and that they try to be very inclusive (“he/she/it”).

We’ve “learned” something important about the answerer’s perspective, the lens through which they are likely to view any subsequent questions that we might ask. Their lens is neither good nor bad, but our awareness of it is something that will influence us in the future when deciding how to phrase any questions that we might want to ask them.

Discovering perspectives…

Through a Lens

Analyzing questions and their answers can be a valuable tool for discovering a bit about the perspectives of the questioners and answerers. 

Everyone sees the world through their own lens of priorities and biases - Assuming that someone else sees what you see is hardly ever a good assumption.

Understanding the perspectives of those we interact with is priceless if we’re interested in fruitful interactions… but we must remember can never be sure that our understanding is correct. We’re seeing their lens through our own lens.

Exposing our own perspectives…

When we ask questions or provide answers, unless we’re very disciplined we’re either going to expose our own perspectives or give others false impressions of our own perspectives.

In my evaluation of this exchange from Quora, I’ve “pigeon holed” both the questioner and the answerer. I may be right or I may be wrong, but I really can’t help it. We evolved our tendency to judge others’ motives to help us survive -  We can’t avoid forming judgments or being judged ourselves.

Pigeon Holes

We can’t avoid being pigeon holed, but we can improve our odds of ending up in the right hole…

Weaponizing Q&A to derail deliberations…

A thoughtlessly worded question or answer can derail a deliberation.

Deliberations can be easily derailed by misunderstood questions and answers. We’ve all experienced this. A participant misunderstands a question or an answer and hijacks the discussions until the misunderstanding is cleared up. It happens all the time. These disruptions are simple and blameless mistakes that we need to watch for and learn how to resolve.

Deliberations can just as easily be derailed by intentionally disruptive questions and answers. Denizens of the internet who are known as trolls are masters of this art. So are those whose interests are best served by ensuring that deliberations about a topic are fruitless. These disruptions are intentional. We need to watch for them and learn how best to respond.

Best practices for Q&A in deliberations…

Assuming that you’re not a troll or intent on disrupting deliberations, there are a few techniques that you can adopt to improve the effectiveness of your own questions and answers.

Remember that every question and every answer is subject to interpretation.

Expect misunderstandings and probe to find them.

Asking questions…

Anticipate that your question will be answered with: Why do you want to know?

If you aren’t clear in your own mind about why you’re asking, then don’t ask until you are.

Accept that no matter how clearly you word your question, someone may misunderstand what you meant to ask.

The most effective method that I know for ensuring understanding is to directly ask folks if they understand what I’m asking

  • If they tell me that they’re not sure what I’m asking, then we have a dialog to ferret out what’s unclear and try to clarify those things.

  • If they say that they understand the question, but I suspect that they don’t, then I’ll (diplomatically) ask them to restate the question. It’s also effective to discuss the motivations and importance of the question…

Answering questions…

Before answering a question, ask yourself if the question is clear. Are you sure you understand what they’re asking? If not, ask for clarification before answering.

Your answers can also be more effective by assuming that they’ll be misunderstood. 

Carefully word your answers. Make them as short as possible (but no shorter). Every word can be important.

If you’re answering in writing, read your answers carefully. Auto-correct is infamous for destroying the meaning of a sentence.

In written correspondence (email, texts, etc.), answers should generally restate the question.

The answer “yes” is meaningless if you don’t know what the question was.

Don’t assume that the discussion thread will be preserved, or that it will be read thoroughly. If the answer doesn’t make sense outside the discussion thread, then it’s more likely to be misunderstood.

Be very careful to make clear distinctions between the information that you’re supplying to answer the question and any additional information that you want to share

There’s nothing wrong with providing additional information that you feel to be pertinent, but you must remember that nobody asked for that information - You may be the only one who feels that it’s important.

Evaluating answers…

When reading an answer, first ask yourself “Is the answer clear?”. Avoid rendering a judgement on an answer until you’re clear what they’re saying.

Once you’re clear on what the answer is meant to relate, then ask yourself “Is the answer accurate?”. Don’t question accuracy before gaining clarity.

When an answer is clear, and you feel that it is accurate, then (and only then) ask yourself “How will this statement influence my decision?

Answers may be very relevant and convey information that is very important to you, or they may not.

Life’s too short to spend much time on things that aren’t important.

Thoughtful Q&A is a learnable skill…

I’ve incorporated support for these Q&A techniques in Trules , but you’ll find that they’re habit forming once you try them.

Expect misunderstandings, and you’ll get better at asking and answering. You’ll learn what works and what doesn’t work for each audience, and get really good at “getting back on track” when you have to.

Photos by Tachina Lee, Warren Wong on Unsplash and Ben Frantz Dale on Wikipedia

John Reynolds
John Reynolds

John is the creator of Trules.