When I was in the 10th grade, I had a science teacher by the name of Robert Evans. He was quirky and eccentric, as mandated by the state of Florida for all high school science teachers, but what really stuck with me was his love for the open-book test. (What also stuck was how he would bring in his guitar and play for us songs he wrote; it all sounded like the theme to 'Renegade').
It's not that his lessons were particularly hard, nor was he out to fluff his testing numbers; he was reinforcing the idea that what you know is less important than knowing how to find an answer. Of course, the immediate application for me then was finding the atomic weight of Carbon, but the older I get the more I find myself chanting a similar mantra to myself:
Finding a Solution is As Easy As Knowing the Right Question
When I first started doing searches on the web, I operated under the idea that "less was more". Fewer search terms meant more results. Back in the 90s that was a good idea, but with the improvement of search engines and the absolute explosion of information available, it's a terrible idea.
Now when I try to find an answer online I start with what I think others would say and refine from there. "PHP form problem" will return 28 million results and a wide gamut of problems. Working through the results, getting a better definition of my problem, and doing another search -- "PHP mail function parameters" -- returns about 5 million, but the first few results give me exactly what I'm looking for. I'm not trying to tell anyone how to use search engines -- that's Web 101 -- I just mean to say that the better question will always lead to the better answer, but sometimes you have game what little you've got to get what you need.
Finding the Right Questions for Clients
Search engines are easy; keep asking them questions, refine after seeing the results, and you'll eventually get the answer you need. People are hard; keep asking them questions, especially the wrong ones, and you're going to piss them off, but I've found the same principle applies -- generalities leading up to specifics:
What can you tell me about your self/business?
What is the goal for your project?
What resources do you have?
These are just a few of my typical starter questions, yours would be different. Follow-ups depend on the answers, but "I don't know" in response to really general questions might be a red flag or a cue to ask a different question.
Most of us approach conversations like this already -- it's no secret -- but I'm often put off by those that can't be bothered with a holistic approach to complex problems. How can you be too busy to talk for 5 minutes about the big picture? I've seen this same type of person intentionally pepper another person with the wrong types of questions to prove their superiority or create unease -- it's abusive.
The Power of Questions
During a conflict, a good question can be the best way to guide the conversation back to civility. In a pitch, a salesman might ask a question to change tack and avoid addressing a negative point_ (which drives me crazy)_. Active listeners make us feel good and interesting with the questions they ask; we're turned off by people that never ask questions -- they seem self-absorbed and inattentive.
More and more I'm realizing that the best things I can bring to any situation are some good questions.