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How To Ask Good Questions When Working Remote

geewee profile image Gustav Wengel Originally published at gustavwengel.dk on ・4 min read

At my current job with SCADA MINDS I work with several different teams at the same time. That means I get to answer many questions. I’ve noticed that some teams are much, much better at asking questions and communicating than others.

Let’s take a look at two real interactions I’ve had that effectively illustrate the difference between good and bad communication in a remote setting. First, the example of bad communication. This was a question asked to me in private:

Next up - the better one. This was a question asked by an intern in a public development channel:

These two interactions are as different as night and day!

Let’s try to consider a couple of factors that will lead to asking good questions - and in turn getting good answers.

Write One Self-Contained Message

One of the most important rules when asking the question is to write one, self-contained, message.

While saying hello before asking your question might seem polite in real-life, it’s awful etiquette when asking questions online.

Don’t write “Hello” in one message and then write your question. Whoever you write “Hello” to is going to get a notification disturbing them, and then sit and wait for you to formulate your question.

And definitely don’t wait for them to say “Hello” back before asking your question. That’s just going to delay the whole process even further.

Compose one message, that contains both the formalities and the question:

Ask Questions In Public

A lot of teams have a tendency to ask questions in private, because they know which person usually has the answers.

This will get the question answered - but it’s not the best way. Here’s why:

  • It leads to more work for the person who’s answering Someone else might have asked the exact same question last week, and maybe someone will next week. This person will end up answering the same question over and over.
  • Your team doesn’t get smarter Anything that goes on in private chats or mails is invisible to the rest of the team who might be struggling with similar questions.
  • Someone else might know better Even if you think you’re asking someone who you think knows the answer, they might not be the best person to answer it. Someone else might have much more expertise with a particular topic, but if you ask in private you’ll never find out.

So instead of asking in private - here’s what you should do: Ask your question in the most public forum that the question is relevant to.

This could be StackOverflow if you have questions that aren’t specific to your particular project or company, or it could be a company issue tracker or Q&A platform. If you can ask it somewhere where it’s easy to find it later that’s best, but if not, the appropriate Teams or Slack channel is also fine.

But if I do that, people don’t answer my question!
Some teams have cultures where people are slower to help out if not explicitly asked, and some teams have cultures where people are eager.

You can still ask questions in public - just make sure to tag the people who you would normally write to in private.

But I’m afraid to look stupid if everyone can see I don’t know something?
That’s very human. But not knowing stuff stuff is part of the game. If you ask good questions, no one will judge you for them.

Share The Answer

Sometimes you can’t get your answer in a public forum. Maybe you’ll have to explain the problem in-person or do some extra troubleshooting with someone. That happens. When it does, you should always write down the answer where you asked the question.

Perhaps your colleagues who tried to help you are curious, or perhaps they will struggle with similar questions. Asking questions in public doesn’t help much if you don’t also share the answers in public.

Ask Good Questions

A lot of stuff has been written about asking good questions. This guide is excellent and friendly, and this guide is also excellent - but much less friendly.

You should read those guides - but quickly summing up there’s two things you should consider when you ask someone a question:

Did you give them enough information to understand your question?

Your message should contain enough information that anyone reading doesn’t need to ask any follow-up questions to understand what your problem is. So read your message before sending it, and consider whether or not you’ve provided enough information.

Have you given them enough information to answer your question?

Most problems can have many potential issues. You need to explain whether or not you have any theories as to what’s going on, and what you have already tried to solve the problem.

If someone is going to answer your question, they’ll need this information. So either you’ll write it down at the start or they’re going to ask you for it. Let’s save them some time and give them all the information right off the bat.

Asking good questions is hard and a skill that takes a while to master. But we can always try to improve our communications. Try noticing if you often have exchanges where someone misunderstands your question or asks for clarification - and try to see if you can do better.

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