Why questions don’t work: A unique strategy for improving your interviews.

One of the most common tasks during any interview is asking questions.

  • What does that mean?

  • Why do you do it that way?

  • Why don’t you like the new screen?

Figuring out the why is typically your #1 goal as a business analyst.  So we ask questions, and then more questions.  Then we document, and ask questions to clarify our questions.

Did you ever wonder if asking all these questions causes more communication problems than they solve.   It is the most common task of a Business Analyst.  But in many cases, it can cause difficulties.


Why don’t questions work?

Notice how your mind and attention was immediately drawn into curiosity about the answer. I am leading you down a path of my choosing.

Questions have a unique power on the mind.  Questions are based on an assumption. They control the flow of any conversation. When your mind and attention are drawn into curiosity about the answer, it narrows your thinking. Our minds jump to that track, and don’t consider other possibilities. Questions lead away from true creative inspiration.

During a prototyping review, ask a business user “What is wrong with this screen?”  Her mind will leap into that frame of thought, and look for problems.  


Words Create Environments

As a business analyst creating a calm environment in which communication flourishes should be your #1 priority. Words operate on both the mental and emotional level. They can create an environment of trust or distrust.  

What if you had the power to create an environment of deep reflection.  One where your business user feels safe, without judgment, to really consider her requirements; a place of powerful creativity.

This place exists when you stop asking questions.

There is a unique coaching technique called Alternate Communication.  With this technique, the goal is to create an empowering environment. Questions are replaced with silence, requests and listening.


The power of silence

Most of us don’t really understand silence.  It isn’t about not talking.  It’s also not about preparing the next question or deciding how you will respond.  It is about stopping the noise; both inside and out. Silence is about 100% concentration on what your business user is saying, and what they aren’t saying.  

The use of silence in interviewing or prototype reviews seems like an oxymoron.  But communication involves much more than words.  Body language, eye contact, and breathing are very powerful indicators of how your business user is feeling.   She may feel forced to say one thing, but feel completely differently.  If you are talking or thinking about your next question, you won’t see the “real answers”.

If you don’t practice silence while listening you will miss precious nuggets that could solidify your prototype or requirements.  While it’s important to have an agenda, your customer may supply information that can illuminate the work.  Missing that simple statement could totally change your review and how you continue.

Silence is the foundation of communications.  It allows room for the other person to move, explore and discover their own true thoughts.  It allows them to find their story – the story that you really want to put on paper or in your prototype.


Requests or Getting the Answers you need

You still need to find answers.  This is where requests come into play. Instead of using the traditional 5 W’s (who, what where, when why), phrase your questions in the form of a request.

  • What is wrong about the new screen?

  • What do you like about the new screen?

  • Tell me about your experience with the new screen.

The first 2 lines are questions.  Whether you ask them in the positive or negative form, they still control the review.  The 3rd example is a request. It opens the question, and allows the interviewee to answer in a free-format answer, allowing the conversation to flow.

Requests are open-ended, inviting and non-challenging. This communication tool allows you to guide the interview, but not control it. Requests empower your business user. This empowerment allows your interview or prototype review to go to that deep reflective place.  And going there always delivers strong insightful answers.  With requests you let the business client guide the prototyping journey.


Using Requests & Prototypes Together

Whenever you want to ask a question, reframe it in your own mind and make a request instead.  Correctly stated requests empower your business user, making them the focus of the conversation.

For example, if you were going to ask “Who told you that?” you change gears and state “Please tell me who told you that”.

There are several ways of turning a question into a request, most involve adding a descriptive verb in front of the 5 W’s:

  1. Tell me...

  2. Explain to me what...

  3. Describe how...

  4. Clarify what…

  5. Share with me…

Get into the habit of using requests by picking just one of the formats and sticking with it. “Tell me” is one of the easiest requests, and can be used for most questions.


Final Tips

The hardest part with this technique is remembering not to ask questions.  As Business Analysts, we are hard-wired to ask the hard questions; it’s the first task we are taught as junior analysts.   

Just remember:

  • Write out your questions before your meeting.  Then rewrite them as requests.  Use this as your agenda to help guide the meeting.

  • Use the power of silence.  State your request, and then be silent.  Allow the business user to consider your statement.  If she doesn’t understand your request, let her tell you that.  It is better to remain silent than ask another question.

  • Use “Tell me…” when first using requests.  It may seem repetitive, however it will get you into the rhythm of using requests.  It works with all types of questions.

It may seem impossible to get your job done without asking questions, but try this simple technique, and you might be very surprised at the results.