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The violence in asking “What is the goal?”

Chris, a Senior Programmer, leaned on the table as Bill wrapped up his proposal about improving the dev process.

Chris unleashed a short, sharp question:“Bill, what’s the goal here?”

Just as expected from a virtual punch in the face, Bill looked stunned.

Staggering a bit, Bill tried to defend, “Chris, we’re trying to reduce the timeframe for Alpha Project’s next update.”

Chris delivered his next blow, “Is that the right goal? Is that what’s most important?”

Bill looked helplessly at the room, which had grown silent.

Finally the director stepped in, “Bill wanted to see if our process could be improved and bring ideas to the group, so I agreed. Nothing’s set in stone, we’re just brainstorming here. Thanks for putting this together, Bill, we’ll review and consider it. Moving on to new business…”

It seems to me when someone doesn’t like an idea, they might attack it by asking, “What’s the goal?”

Now that I think of it, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard this question asked when someone likes an idea.

To observers, it might not seem like an attack.

And the speaker might not even intend to attack.

But, I can tell you from experience, it might certainly feel like an attack.

The dark side of a question

Questions have a particular disruptive power.

It’s like they hack deep into our brain and interrupt the directions we were heading with our thoughts.

When someone else is talking, your question is almost always going to shift the conversation in a new direction.

It could build up, tear down, or derail entirely.

When asked by someone with more power, this can have a 10x effect.

Learn to use them sparingly and become aware of their power.

#ProTip for asking questions

If a question comes to mind when someone is presenting/talking, write it down immediately to avoid the urge to speak it.

Then sit with it for five minutes.

If you still want to ask it, ask yourself, “How will this change the direction of the discussion?”

If you still want to move it in that direction, ask yourself, “Is this the right time to change the direction?”

Then sit on it another full five minutes before you ask it.

I’ve been surprised that writing it down often relieves the urge to ask it.

And that many of my “important” questions don’t pass those two tests.

How do you see questions used in discussions where you work?


About Marcus Blankenship

Where other technical coaches focus on process or tools, I focus on the human aspects of your Programmer to Manager transition. I help you hire the right people, create the right culture, and setup the right process which achieves your goals. Managing your team isn't something you learned in college. In fact, my clients often tell me "I never prepared for this role, I always focused on doing the work". If you're ready to improve your leadership, process and team, find out how I can help you.

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