Backward From The Answer

Some questions sound really good. They just seem neat. We can’t help it – we hear something like “if you could be any animal, what would it be” and we just sort of get lost in the possibilities. So we imagine that there’s some wisdom to be gained from what people say.

And sure, there might be. That actually might be a neat icebreaker question at a party or on a first date to just learn more about people in general. But it’s an abysmal question from the standpoint of trying to find out something specific, it’s abysmal.

There are times when you want to start with a question and go from there, and times when you want to work backward from the answer. Knowing which is which will do wonders for your ability to effectively gather information.

To start, there are really two reasons you ever want information: to learn or to make a decision.

If you want to learn, then being open-ended is the way to go. Trying to get to a specific answer when you want to learn is counter-productive. It opens you up to all sorts of bias, limits what you actually learn, and causes you to focus on rote memorization instead of true understanding. In these cases, it’s best to ask open-ended questions, things that could lead you anywhere. Whether you’re exploring a new topic or a new person, it’s great to just dive in and absorb without trying to get to some imaginary endpoint.

If you want to make a concrete decision, then you have to know what you don’t know. To take a very basic example, let’s say you’re facing the decision of whether to extend a job offer to a candidate or not. To make that decision, you have to figure out the answer first – you’re essentially looking for “will this person reliably perform these job duties at or above expectations?” Now ask yourself why you don’t already know that.

It’s likely because you don’t know enough about their past work or past reliability, so you should ask questions directly related to those subjects. It’s very not likely that it’s because you don’t know what sort of animal they would be if they could.

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