May 23 2024

Why asking questions properly matters.

1. Why?
Those who have attended any of my talks may remember me saying that the most dangerous word in the English language is “Why?”. Dangerous because it so often exposes those who have no answer or whose answer would make them look a fool. Or worse.

For proof of how devastating this little word can be in the right hands and used at the right time, look no further than the last 5 minutes on the first day of Paula Vennells’ evidence to the Williams Inquiry – here. (Or from 2 hours, 3 minutes in here.) The judge’s lead in and timing are impeccable. And deadly.

If you do not ask this question yourself, you risk finding yourself on the receiving end.

2. Don’t prejudge the answer.

Ask an open question. For instance: “Does this system permit remote access? In what circumstances?” and so on. Keep on going until you’ve understood all the possible permutations. If you say “I want this answer.” you cannot rely on what you will be told because it will simply echo what you’ve already made clear you want. Whether through fear of saying something people don’t want to hear, a desire to please the boss, laziness (“this’ll do“) or just the effect of believing what fits your – or others’ – preconception, you quickly cross the line into faith rather than evidence-based conclusions.

3. Ask the obvious

“Horizon is robust.” It was the Post Office’s catechism, recited at every possible opportunity, an expression of faith in a system which could not possibly be admitted to be less than perfect.

Why did no-one ever ask two obvious questions and test the answers: –

– What do you mean by “robust“?
– What’s your basis for saying so? Or even “Why do you say so?”

That word again. Why? We should use it more often than we do.

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