Answer the Question Asked

“Bill, are you running SQL R2 on your desktop?”

This seems like a simple enough question, yet I usually cannot get an answer to a question like this on the first try. Why? The simple answer is that people don’t hear the question you ask. People hear a question through filters. What this means to me is that I’m perpetually asking the same question multiple times to the same person, just to convince them that it’s what I really want to know.

Would you like an example? Well, let’s consider Bill. Bill may have some or all of these mental filters going on at the moment my question hits his eardrums (or his email inbox):

  • There’s something SQL-related Bill was supposed to do this week, but hasn’t yet. He’s feeling nervous about that.
  • He imagines something has happened, or some code has been written, in an R2 environment, and he’s anxious to assure me he hasn’t changed code or messed with production.
  • He thinks there’s something I need to test on R2, and so he’d like to jump straight to recommending an R2 box he’d rather I use, thus saving time within the conversation.
  • He thinks I’m looking into licensing, and that I need the edition (rather than the version).

Any of these might cause Bill to answer me indirectly, or not at all:

Bill, are you running SQL R2 on your desktop?
[Bill:nervous] I was just getting to that PRM script.
What?

Bill, are you running SQL R2 on your desktop?
[Bill:anxious] Why do you ask? I haven’t opened SSMS today.
What?

Bill, are you running SQL R2 on your desktop?
[Bill:helpful] I think Dev09 has R2 installed.
What?

Bill, are you running SQL R2 on your desktop?
[Bill:super helpful] I’m running Developer edition.
….??

Now, I like to head off concerns at the pass and shorten conversations as much as the next DBA. But I have been well trained to answer the question asked. If I then feel the need to add more information (or ask questions), I will.

Jen, are you running SQL R2 on your desktop?
[Jen:responsive] Yes I am, Developer Edition. What’s up?

Sure, there’s a lot going on, all the time. We’re busy, multitasking, intelligent people. That shouldn’t prevent you from communicating clearly – especially at work (or in an interview!) A simple answer often cuts straight through the chatter.

Happy days,
Jen McCown
MidnightDBA.com/Jen

Thanks to Grant Fritchey for the link to this excellent article about how to ask questions, which partially inspired this blog.  Thanks to Sean McCown, who has said it 1,000 times if he’s said it once: “ANSWER the QUESTION I ASKED.”

Edit: I’m currently reading the appendix of Denny Cherry’s (webTwitter) excellent book “Securing SQL Server“, which has this pertinent note (emphasis mine):

When working with an auditor, always answer the question being asked, and only the question being asked. … If an auditor asks a question that is very broad, there is nothing wrong with asking for clarification of thq uestions. Don’t assume that you know what question the auditor is asking becuase if the audit is asking one thing, and you assume the opposite, your wrong assumption could cause the company to fail the audit.

Yes, just another real-life example of the criticality of proper responses. -J

4 thoughts on “Answer the Question Asked”

  1. You’ve identified one of my biggest pet peeves. Most of the time, there’s no reason a simple yes/no question needs to turn into a 15 minute discussion.

  2. Look at any political debate (at any level) and ask yourself how directly the candidate has answered a particular question. It’s Bill all over.:

    Question: Will these tax cuts help our farmers?
    Answer: Look, tax cuts work, and the reason our economy is heading south is because of my opponent’s policies furthermore …

    I remember being in an interview (as an interviewee) where I mentally recalled the question that was asked as I was wrapping up my answer. It would usually translate into a sentence like:
    “… and that’s the difference between a clustered index and a nonclustered index”
    or
    “… and that’s where I see myself in five years”
    or
    “… and that’s why manhole covers are round.”

    You get the idea.

    1. Well the thing with politicians is that it doesn’t pay to answer questions directly. Direct answers are going to piss SOMEBODY off. A politician’s job is to appeal to as many people as possible. So if he can just blab and sound good, without actually saying anything, job well done. Kind of a bad exapmle, though I’m with you – I wish it weren’t the case.

  3. Been there. Not as the person asking question, but as Bill :)
    In Bill’s defence Jen, they always ask questions when Bill is either nervous or anxious.

    Cheers!
    ~Sam.

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