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The question of questions

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It was an innocent question. I don’t want to embarrass anyone about actual recent events by relating the specifics. What matters is that it was a simple inquiry that should have been readily answerable.

I didn’t get a ready answer. It turned out I’d asked a tar-baby question.

If you aren’t familiar with the term, the original tar baby had its origins in African-American folklore. It was a doll made out of tar by Br’er Fox (the bad guy) to trap Br’er rabbit (the good guy). A tar baby is anything that’s easy to grab but hard to let go of once you’ve grabbed it.

[Because it matters: “Tar baby” has been accused of being a racial slur. Given its origins and meaning it isn’t, and given the lack of evocative synonyms I’m unwilling to give it up.]

I’d sent my question to everyone who might plausibly have known the answer. Several –probably the ones who figured they were responsible for answering — sent me responses that weren’t answers. After a couple of rounds of trying to clarify my question, it became clear that while someone should have figured it out quite some time ago, nobody ever had.

My question was a tar baby — having grabbed the topic I couldn’t let it go.

Except that yes, I could.

So can you. If you find yourself holding on to a tar-baby question, there’s a simple, although unsatisfying solution: Stop.

Don’t even announce that you’re stopping. Just stop. Unlike actual tar, you can let go of your email chain any time you want to through the simple expedient of not clicking the Reply/Reply All button. You won’t experience the satisfaction of closure, but you will experience the satisfaction of not wasting any more time on a losing proposition.

There’s a variation on this theme — asking a question when you know nobody can answer it. It’s a way to suggest someone should come up with the answer without volunteering to be that person, as you would if you were to recommend it instead.

There’s another variation on the same theme. Call it Q&A Dissonance. It’s when you ask a question and get an answer to a different question that sounds something like your question but wasn’t your question.

Usually, Q&A Dissonance is the result of the ambiguity inherent in human communication. Try to clarify in a Reply. If that doesn’t do the job, pick up the phone, or, if possible, walk over to where the other person sits and hash it out face to face.

Email might be the most efficient communication channel when you’re measuring efficiency in terms of your time budget, but the printed word lacks many of the nuances vocalization provides; voice-to-voice is far less robust than the body language and facial expressions that accompany face-to-face conversations; and nothing beats sharing a whiteboard.

There’s a variation on the Q&A Dissonance variation that’s far less benign. Call it Opportunistic Dissonance-Driven Posturing. (Or don’t — call it anything you like. I won’t mind.)

I found myself on the receiving end of Opportunistic Dissonance-Driven Posturing quite a few years ago when one of my then-employer’s executives came to town for a meet-and-greet with a large program team I was part of.

After his opening remarks he opened things up for questions. I asked one, about our company’s growth strategies. He answered … well, no, he didn’t. He instead lectured me about my sense of entitlement, my not being willing to make sacrifices to further the company’s success, and a few other choice items, all of which were centered on his personal history and virtues as models for me to emulate. “Did that answer your question?” he finished?

Well, no, but it answered two questions that were far more important: “Do you have any interest in what those of us here on the ground think?” and “Please reveal something important about your character.” Not that I had the presence of mind and absence of good sense to say that. I believe my eloquent reply was a mumbled, “close enough.”

Which brings us to the point of this week’s missive, to the extent there is a point: Every question is more than a request for information. Questions are also useful tools for making suggestions, and opportunities to build working relationships.

Beyond that, they call attention to whoever asks them. Sometimes you want that, as when someone who hears you ask it might think, “Now that’s a perceptive question.”

Know your audience before you call attention to yourself, though. Because for everyone who appreciates the value of perceptive questions there are probably a dozen who ask … themselves … a very different question:

Who do you think you are?

Comments (9)

  • Bob, you racist SOB! I shocked, SHOCKED, that you use a likely true piece of black cultural folk lore, just because it was true, universal, and useful. (BTW, in the future, you could run it past a black friend or colleague, to inoculate yourself from charges of unconscious racism.) Plus, I’m finally old enough to be the wise old black dude replacing Uncle Remus and Morgan Freeman, so no throwing of shade on the tar baby story!

    Great column. The only problem with it is that you didn’t share any of what the tar baby question actually was, so we might get a sense of what made it tar-babyish. In my experience tar baby questions can be, when handled effectively, great opportunities for personal growth. However, if you actually want to get something concrete from it, implementing a scaffolding process to handle the (self) discovery process that is integral to responding to a t.b.q. might be helpful…once you recognize that your helpful question was actually a t.b.q.

  • Please don’t throw me into the briar patch! Anything but that.

    One of your best articles ever. Reminds me of some advice my gramps gave me years ago, keep your eyes and ears open and your mouth shut.

  • Maintaining a conversation via email responses is akin sailing by moving the tiller once every few minutes, and only after long and possibly solitary deliberation. It can be done, it might be appropriate in the middle of the ocean, but it’s not optimal for most situations and downright dangerous in close quarters. A phone call or walk down the hall keeps the conversation on an even keel, one nudge at a time.

    What I started using corporate email in 1991 at small technology start-up, we were all new to email. Disagreements over system design and schedules inside email chains could devolve into weighty tomes. The more passionately held the view, the longer the responses; what should have been brief answers started wandering off into larger (and sometimes even personal) exchanges that are embarrassing to recall.

    I need only change a few letters to add another variation to your “Q&A Dissonance”: Call it “Opportunistic Distance-Driven Posturing.” You cited phone calls and walks-down-the-hall as effective “tiller-nudging” alternatives to Grand Old Email novellas.

    All true, but may I recommend you include online chat and video conferencing to that mix? Online chat in particular is among the most effective ways to keep conversations on track and moving forward. There’s no opportunity to write chapter and verse as with email (or, say, online comments). For many of us, screen sharing is the new whiteboard. All eyes are on the same spreadsheet or specification. Many of my office-located co-workers choose to stay at their own screen rather than sit in a conference room looking over a shoulder or at wall display at the other end of the room.

    I mention video conferencing almost as on obligation, but we rarely use it. (Who wants to shave or bathe, anyway?) I do take special care to arrange face-to-face time with my boss 1000 miles away a few time each year, usually in conjunction with visits to family in his area. (Company funds once set aside for travel to face-to-face meetings have dried up, now going toward relocating workers permanently).

    After 18 years as a successful telecommuter, I’m dismayed by the recent push to eliminate the practice in favor of “collaborative workspaces.” Remember some of us cannot “walk down the hall”. And that’s OK as long we have the right tools and corporate culture.

  • My main criteria for determining intelligence is the type of questions you ask.
    People who don’t ask questions either already know everything or aren’t paying attention.
    I tell how useful managers and leaders are by how they respond to questions since very few of them ever have enough ego confidence to actually ask a question in front of

    I don’t see much difference between e-mail, texting and face-to-face questions. No matter how clear I think my question, I still get obfuscation and misdirection. And asking for clarification often results in an argument instead of an answer.

  • Oh boy. Over 30 years into my career and I STILL need to learn this lesson. Despite nearly daily reminders of it.

  • “There’s another variation on the same theme. Call it Q&A Dissonance. It’s when you ask a question and get an answer to a different question that sounds something like your question but wasn’t your question.”

    Sounds like the Mike Zukerberg hearings. Though I did learn that all this hoopla was caused by use of a loop hole that facebook closed in 2014.

  • Correction, Mark Zukerberg. My apologies

  • Bob,
    Not the point of your article, but it gave me an idea.
    I started adding this to the end of all my email correspondences:

    The printed word lacks many of the nuances vocalization provides and is far less robust than the body language and facial expressions that accompany face-to-face conversations. If you take offense to anything contained in this email, please give its sender the benefit of the doubt and attribute it to the shortcomings of the medium. Kindly bring the matter to my attention so that I may clear up any misunderstanding.

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