Enquiry Questions

TL;DR – Asking questions when you already think you know the answer still has benefits including relationship building, gauging expectations and navigating tricky situations.

I was in my first meeting with the client for a new consulting / architecture assignment. The project had been running for a while with one of my colleagues already involved. At one point I put a question to one of the customer representatives – but my colleague cut-in an answered on their behalf. It wasn’t totally surprising, since we had discussed the same subject in preparation for the call, so to a certain extent I knew the answer. Straight after the customer meeting my colleague and I were doing a debrief:

Colleague: “Why did you ask about [that topic]? I already told you [something relevant].”

Why? There’s several scenarios: relationship-building with the customer, getting on to the “same page”, verifying / re-verification information, or using it to then transition into more delicate topics. I’m going to call these “enquiry questions”. Let’s look at some different scenarios.

Relationship Building & Inter-Personal Connection

When you’re coming fresh into a already running project you need to get up to speed as quickly as possible – and not just the technical side, more importantly it’s about quickly establishing effective inter-personal connections with the people you’re working with. As an architect you are in a leadership position, and your success will largely hinge on your key relationships and how well you can leverage them.

In the consulting context, asking about some aspect of the project is a bit like showing personal interest – it demonstrates that your engaged and interested, which is exactly what key people want to see from you: that you are speaking their language, that you have a sense of the right priorities, that you’re not afraid to ask questions, and so on.

Asking enquiring questions also gives you an opportunity to gauge their response – how they react to a question can indicate how they feel about a given topic, where their priorities lie, and so on.

Getting on the “Same Page”

Being on the “same page” is metaphor for having a similar understanding of a given context, and being broadly like-minded regarding how that context will be treated. In a project or consulting context this must at least cover scope, objectives and priority – it’s critical for everyone that you and the customer are on the same page, otherwise it will lead to friction that will distract from getting things done.

Asking something we already know (or strongly suspect) allows us to confirm we are on the same page or expose gaps where we are not, allowing us to then start closing those gaps.

Reconfirmation

Personally reconfirming something directly means that you won’t get caught-out by information that is secondhand or out of date. It feeds into the “same page” concept and can also help transition towards more detailed and focused conversations.

Being an architect, or in any position of responsibility, means you need to be very attuned to the information you are basing decisions on – because if you don’t do due diligence on critical information and assumptions, it’s your fault if things go wrong.

Direct personal reconfirmation isn’t just risk mitigation, it also means you can tune in to any nuance – such as the customers attitude to the topic:

  • Are they clear and precise when they discuss it – implying they have a clear understanding that also gels with reality.
  • Do they show genuine passion or are they indifferent, i.e. how much you need to care about it might be driven by how much they care about it. Alternatively, low customer enthusiasm for something critical may indicate an issue which needs addressing.

Through no fault of their own, the people before you may have “listened but not heard”, so reconfirming things also about giving yourself a chance to dig deeper and be more precise.

Delicate Topics

Asking about something you already have some knowledge of can be a safe way to start a specific discussion – on the assumption that you already have some expectations around where the conversation will likely go – meaning that you are better prepared for it. Starting off with a conversation that goes well also helps to build immediate confidence and provide a platform for trickier questions.

Sometimes people need to feel that they are heard. Asking an open question can be a good opening for that, perhaps allowing a customer to air frustrations that need to be worked through. Asking the question in the right way can also indicate your position, which may in-turn help channel the type of response they provide.

Risks

Is there a risk you’ll look stupid asking something you should already know? Yes, but it’s usually small risk. Generally I’ll be asking the question for a reason, and part of the calculus will be a gauge of how the person is likely to respond – will they be annoyed or open.

A big factor in risk management, which you control, is how you frame the question. Done correctly you can use such questions as a lead-in to harder topics – assuming they are related and the segue is therefore natural. A simple way out is to literally say that you want to start by ensuring everyone is on the “same page”. Being new to the project usually affords you a certain amount of leeway, so covering old ground is not likely to cause any issues.

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