Kyle's life in technology

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

There are no stupid questions, only stupid answers

In my industry, we seem overrun by a number of people who don't know how to answer questions. My 6th grade english teacher maintained that there was no such thing as stupid questions, only stupid answers. I am now a firm believe in this.

Let me illustrate:

1) If someone comes up to you, their clothes ablaze, and screams, "Where's a bucket of water?" do you:

  1. Stare in fascination at how brightly polyester can burn
  2. Tell them that you think there is a water spigot out behind the barn, and there may be a bucket inside one of the old horse stalls
  3. Keenly realize this person needs help, instruct them to stop, drop, & roll, while you run and get water & call 911.

1) is fecitious, 2) is technically correct but of no value, and 3) is a good answer. But #3 isn't an answer really, is it? In actuality, it is a far better response than the first two. Its all about context and knowing what the person is really asking. You recognize that the person is in serious need of help, which is why they asked you the question. You think for yourself and determine how to help them. (By the way, #2 is a stupid answer)

2) If user of your software comes to you, and says, "I get this really big greek error message when I click this button. Pleae help me", do you:
  1. Tell them it means another process has the named mutex
  2. Tell them how to work around it and file a bug report so that it gets fixed.
If you chose #2, DING DING DING, you are the winner. Answer #1 is technically correct, but worthless. If you chose #2, you recognize why they are asking you the question in the first place and help them. The point is that when you answer someone's question (or have any communication with them), it's not enough to answer the question with something that is technically correct. Ask yourself:
  1. What is the outcome of this interaction that would be of value to the asker? (Or rather, what do they really want?)
  2. What information does this person really care about? Strive to answer the question effectively but also with brevity.
In this way, you will spread the joy of effective communication to all those around you. Please, please -- think before you answer.


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