5 tips on how to: ask powerful questions to get powerful answers

Asking questions is incredibly important as a skill – knowing when and how to ask questions can really drive your development and not knowing how and when asking is important can leave you missing out on so many opportunities.

When I was a very junior developer I thought that it was really weird that the senior developer next to me would message me all the time on IM … I mean, I was right next to him? Why did he do that? Why not just … speak to me?

However now I know why! … He was deep in thought!

IM is a way of having conversations asynchronously so that he could continue in his deep thought of development … As soon as this clicked with me I slapped my head! As a developer having full focus on your work can be incredibly important, and interruptions to this can leave you feeling really inefficient.

To prevent you from making some developer faux pas I’ve put together 5 tips that help you to ensure that the questions you ask are not only relevant, but respectful, powerful and also well utilised.

5 powerful question tips

  1. Write everything down – When you ask questions, make sure to write down the answers, there’s nothing more infuriating than when you get asked a question but the person asking the question doesn’t remember it or write it down, take the time to do this and it’ll make your colleagues much happier to answer your questions
  2. Offer to write documentation – The best time to write docs is when you needed them and they didn’t exist. Too many developers immediately start saying “URGH why is there no documentation for this?” … if this is you, the reason there is no documentation is your attitude – take responsibility and get it done yourself. If you’ve been taking notes to the questions you’ve asked you should already have everything documented, right? …
  3. Don’t just say “I understand” – It’s so easy to just quickly say that you understand something when you don’t, especially if you’ve asked a few times, stick with it and ask any questions you have.
  4. Drive the discussion – I personally like to understand through drawings and visuals, as you’re listening just start drawing what you hear and ask the person explaining to confirm what you’ve drawn. It’s your responsibility to make sure that you understand, remember this is about you and the questions that you need to ask – take ownership and drive your discussions.
  5. Approach people respectfully – When you have a questions in the office then one thing that you can do to ensure that your questions don’t come across in the wrong way is to respect the person you’re asking of. When you’re a developer having a stream of thoughts is something you sometimes just don’t want to lose, and there’s nothing worse than a big pat on the back to say “Hey, my thing is more important than your thing” … don’t be that guy! Approach someone with your question, stand next to them and wait for them to finish what they’re doing – or, where possible ask them if they have a moment by IM, this will help them keep their thoughts together and they’ll respect you for more for doing so.

Question: What types of behaviour bothers you most with regards to questions … when someone forgets everything you’ve said or doesn’t listen? It’s important to know what frustrates you as you don’t want to do that to others…

— Leave me a comment and let me know!

Lou is a Front End Software Developer who currently lives and works in London. A voracious reader with an insatiable inquisition.

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  • Great advice! There is nothing more annoying than a colleague assuming you are free just because you are quietly working at your desk. This is my ‘busiest’ time! Politeness and patiently waiting to be acknowledged shows respect and good manners.

    Another pet peeve of mine is the same person coming back repeatedly for clarification. Your tips are ‘on point.’ Thank-you.

    • Absolutely – striking at the right time really helps, too.

      Finding the right time to ask the question is also really important! – After lunch, when they’ve eaten usually! 😛

  • Dennis Atkin

    Allow time for the answer (use of silence) knee jerk answers when pressured can all too often steer a conversation away from the focus.

    • Absolutely – especially if there’s chance of them taking it personally!