How to ask questions?
February 20, 2013 7:44 PM   Subscribe

I read the esr article, and thought that was pretty good advice about asking questions. Then I realized I don't get enough advice about asking questions. So are there any considered texts, resources, etc about asking really good questions? Any direct advice? Edificatory anecdotes?
posted by curuinor to Writing & Language (4 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Before you ask someone, think the question through and see if you've answered it yourself. This is often called rubber duck debugging.
posted by rmd1023 at 7:51 PM on February 20, 2013

This is one of those things that has been studied at least in one direction, in the library world. One of the things librarians learn to do in library school is conduct a reference interview which is a series of back and forth queries to help the librarian and the patrons figure out how to get them the information or materials that will solve their information need. You can google the term yourself, there is an overview that is decent on Wikipedia.

There are other scenarios where you might do things differently. In tech support scenarios we often ask questions like this

- what was the last thing you did?
- what were you expecting to happen?
- what happened instead?

Getting people to explain what they were expecting from the technology can help you understand what they are now expecting from you.
posted by jessamyn at 8:04 PM on February 20, 2013 [3 favorites]

There's an old joke that in philosophy, there are only two questions: "Oh yeah?" and "So what?"

The idea is that all questions you might ask about someone else's claim boil down to these:
Oh yeah? = Is the claim really true? (request for evidence or arguments in favor of the claim)
So what? = If the claim were true, would it really have the implications you say it has? (request for evidence of arguments supporting the supposed implications of the claim)
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:07 AM on February 21, 2013 [4 favorites]

As a followup to jessamyn's advice, I suggest instead of just describing "what was the last thing you did" you also might want to back up and say what general problem you are trying to solve.

In the software world, I often get questions about some esoteric detail of some minor component of the program. But the real problem the questioner is trying to solve is ten or fifty steps back along a convoluted path that's led them here based on one or more misunderstandings. Their mistake is asking about where they are now, instead of asking for help with what they want to accomplish - because where they are now is wrong.

Explaining what you tried is great, and shows that you've invested energy in solving your problem. This will help potential answerers feel you are worth their energy. But don't forget to say what your actual goal is.

Her questions 2 and 3 are spot on.
posted by fritley at 7:38 AM on February 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

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