A Geek’s Guide to Probing

As a result of reading this article, you will learn….

  1. How Geeks Tend to Probe
  2. Where Said Probing is Most Effective
  3. Where Said Probing is Least Effective
  4. Ways that Geeks (not sayin’ you are one) Can Expand Their Repertoire of Probing Techniques

Ready for it? Okay, let’s begin…

1. How Geeks Tend to Probe

While in a design discussion about a soft-skills training program for a group of software engineers and IT support staff (aka, “techies,” aka  “geeks,” aka “analytical types,” aka “people who will run the world despite what the popular kids in high school thought”) , the subject of a techie’s questioning & listening skills came up.

When engaged in a “probing” situation, that is to say, a situation where a person wants to uncover additional information via dialog with another human being, we geeks have a penchant for using a kind of flow chart logic, that is to say,  a series of closed-ended questions usually with binary TRUE or FALSE or limited multiple-choice response options.

To illustrate how this “flow chart logic” works, we can turn to XKCD for some recursive humor and guidance on the subject:

In the heat of the moment of trying to solve a problem, the analytical person may default to this mode.  Some people call it Deductive Reasoning, some call it Regression Analysis, some call it Occam’s Razor. I call it a habit fed through hours of childhood reading of Issac Asimov dialogue scenes and playing The Animal Game on a neighbor’s circa-1980 Apple II personal computer.  Ah, the Animal Game!  Amazing how a computer program can guess whatever animal you’re thinking of…you  just need to be patient and answer a long series of YES/NO questions.

2. Where Said Probing is Most Effective

Using flow chart logic as a questioning approach will sometimes work well, particularly on certain problems that involve a process or procedure.

For example, “Why is my Internet connection failing?” 

Hey, we’ve got a flow chart / decision-tree for that!   

“Is you computer plugged in?”  >>YES/NO>>  “Is the router plugged in?”  >>YES/NO>> “Is the router cable connected to the wall socket?” >>YES/NO >> (…)   etc.  >> (…)  etc. >> “Oh wait, you’re using WHICH browser??”   >> GO AWAY >> NOT MY PROBLEM, N00B.

There are also moments in a conversation where a little flow chart logic is needed, to guide the conversation and rule out areas of unnecessary exploration… but these are (and should be) only moments, not the entire line of questioning.

3. Where Said Probing is Least Effective

On the other hand, for many problems, particularly problems having to do with people and other “squishy” subjects, the flow chart probing approach often failsbecause it puts all the work (and conversational energy) on the side of the questioner, and not on the responder.

With a series of closed-ended questions, the questioner works out the logic and presupposes all the possible answers, all while subjecting the other party to an inquisition. This approach can be a massively inefficient allocation of mental resources and risks missing critical information — i.e. the stuff you don’t know that you don’t know.  Most importantly, a relentless YES/NO diagnostic will ultimately degrade the quality of the relationship between the Prober and the Probed.

Of course, geeks can’t resist applying flow chart logic to even the most squishy, most confounding subjects  out there… and what can be more confounding to a geek than the Female Character?

As it happens, there’s a flowchart for that:

(HT GYehuda)

Of course, as this post explains, the above flowchart was designed to be a map of some of the major stereotypical female tropes in fiction… and that’s the key message in all of this: Flow charts are great for mapping out pre-conceived, simple ideas.    Dealing with real world problems and real world people requires something more than just an elaborate flow chart.

So this brings us to the fourth and final piece of the puzzle:

4. Ways that Geeks (not sayin’ you are one) Can Expand Their Repertoire of Probing Techniques

So, how can a person improve their questioning skills?

Try answering these three questions:

  1. What are the specific techniques of effective questioning?
  2. What do “good listeners” do, specifically?
  3.  What are the beliefs and attitudes that are most helpful to adopt, in order to be an effective questioner/listener?

You already know many of the answers… but you need to take the time to think about it, and then take a bit more time to work on applying it. Just do it.

Start by ditching the closed-ended, fixed-variable-response questions… ask less “Does” “Is” and “Can” and ask more “How” and “Why.” Decide that your goal is to learn as much as possible, with minimum confirmation bias.

If you must, read some books or articles on questioning skills… the world of sales training has generated an abundance of material on the subject. Take a course… do a role play… but most importantly, starting DOING it.

When’s  the last time someone said to you, “Hey, that’s a great question?”


About danspira

My blog is at: http://danspira.com. My face in real life appears at a higher resolution, although I do feel pixelated sometimes.

Posted on November 20, 2010, in Communication Skills, Learning and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Interesting post.

    In my experience this “geek probing” is the primary defense mechanism of a solitary geek. It wears out the marketing person, requires little thought and has proven to be extremely effective.

    My research has shown that if another geek is present – the dynamic changes. If 2 geeks are placed in the same room and asked to solve a technical problem they tend to use the “geek probing” on themselves leading to a richer dialogue.

    However, this technique may lead to mutual assured geek exhaustion (MAGE) so be diligent in its use.


    • Brilliant observations, Brent!

      Yes, I too have experienced all three of those scenarios, from both the geek and the non-geek position.

      It’s very frustrating, as a non-geek, to get the ornery geek’s “defensive probe.” I’ve noticed that one effective way to defuse that is to recognize that the first few branching-logic questions serve an additional purpose: to vet your technical competence. If you can demonstrate it early enough up from, the geek may relax with you and work collaboratively.

  1. Pingback: Could They Do It If Their Life Depended On It? (..and other silly questions by Robert Mager) « Meme Menagerie

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