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So, as part of my job, I sometimes get requirements from users without any context. This context can be useful for reasons above and beyond justifying the requirement itself. These come from fellow employees providing requirements for application development requests. As an example,

"I need reports of X, Y, and Z."
"Why?
"Because I need to measure the impact of the new fubar widget.
"Oh, in that case, would a report for W be useful too?"
"Oh, yes it would."

Problem is, sometimes the conversation looks more like:

"I need reports of X, Y, and Z."
"Why?
"Look, I just need it, okay?"

I'm assuming the reason behind this is that users infer 'Why?' to mean a skeptical 'Are you really sure you need this?'. To be fair, sometimes it does mean that, but sometimes it's just an innocent 'why' without that implication! I'd like to be able to properly differentiate the two when asking. How can I?

This isn't just for professional contexts, either. I'd also like to avoid situations like:

"I really like hunting"
"Why?"
"***** you, I like what I like."

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  • Hi Sarov. Are these users some customers of yours? What professional relationship between you? Is your job to give them raw data (or whatever they need) and move on or do you have a different role?
    – OldPadawan
    Aug 31 at 15:06
  • @OldPadawan Fellow employees providing requirements for application development requests. As stated it's not just that specific situation where this would be useful, though.
    – Sarov
    Aug 31 at 18:23
  • 1
    I have trouble interpreting those any other way. If you don't want to ask why, then why do you ask at all? What is it that you are actually trying communicate in your response? It is not clear to me.
    – DKNguyen
    Sep 1 at 0:27
  • 1
    @DKNguyen Since OP is an application developer, I think it's safe to assume that business users present him with requirements that duplicate existing partially-automated procedures, not realizing that if they supplied OP with a fuller account of their ultimate aim he could fully automate those procedures. I can't count the number of times users have asked me for data dumps so they could then spend hours doing further transformations of that data in Excel - because they just don't realize I could do those transformations for them directly.
    – tbrookside
    Sep 1 at 1:44
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    @DKNguyen I agree. But that is actually the answer to OP's question. I think Milo's answer is the right one, although I would probably add even more detail to Milo's basic re-phrasing, depending on the exact content.
    – tbrookside
    Sep 1 at 15:05
20

The most useful way I found to do this is by using more words. Instead of asking just a single-worded "why", I try to include some of the context, some of my reason for asking, in the question. Basically, ask yourself why you're asking "why" first.

So, in case of people telling me about e.g. liking a certain hobby, instead of asking them "why", I ask what they like about it the most, or what got them started and stick with it.

For work, instead of asking "why" or " why do you need this", I would include a mention of doing just a quick check to make sure that the person asking has everything they need and won't need to come back later for even more, then ask if they can share for what purpose they plan to use X, Y and Z.

Usually, this ends up going well. For casual conversations it gives people a chance to talk more about themselves which they always seem to like, and for work people end up expressing gratitude towards me for trying to help them in the best way possible and adding my thoughts to theirs. Though for work, there sometimes is the occasional 'none of your business' still, but at least those people don't seem to think I'm skeptical of their request.

As a side effect of asking things in the way described above, some coworkers people have also started to automatically include their reasons for asking for a specific thing at times, which makes the conversations with them move on a bit quicker.

8

Your question is about the same problem, but in to different environments. I'll then separate them as they'll ask for different approach. In both cases, as it stands, a single "why" is very aggressive. No wonder why people jump out of their way, as "why" questions often lead to an unproductive or hostile response. People don't like to feel like they have to justify themselves.

  1. The workplace setting

I've but only failed when I was doing like you do. I quickly understood I had to be more polite, and provide people with "sugar-coated" helpful questions if I wanted them to not feel like they were being "verbally assaulted", but also be more inclined to respond positively. You'll find hundreds of links about the best way to nicely ask people according to the situation. Some very simple examples.

In your case: you know the software / application but not the reasons of the colleague for asking. Step in their shoes: why do they need this? If you want to be helpful, show that you're willing to do your best. You can simply ask for clarification while you tell them why you ask. ie: is this for doing X/Y/Z? I'm asking because I can do A/B/C or give you this as an extra tool if needed. When doing this, I often had an answer to my "raw why in disguise", plus the considerations of the person. It's much more efficient and strategic, without being aggressive at all. It's a small inquiry in order to offer for extra help.

  1. The friends setting

In this case, the "why" is also very aggressive, and almost an accusatory tone, close to a patronizing effect. Instead, expand your "why" by showing genuine interest. Your "why" must lead to a wider explanation. ie: you like A/B/C?! Sounds interesting! I'd really like to know what you find interesting doing this. You tell me more about it maybe? You get the idea behind. People will be able to share only what they want to. Because you ask an open-ended question. You don't push them. They don't feel attacked. Therefore, more willing to answer.

To summarize, I'd say that you need to put more nice words into your sentences when you ask people for feedback, reasons, or any other topic. You ask questions, well, by asking questions :) Real and complete questions, with words, that "why?" alone isn't...

8

In each of these cases, you could start by indicating agreement.

"I need reports of X, Y, and Z."

"Sure, what's the context?"

or

"I really like hunting"

"Nice, what do you like about it?"

This establishes that you're aligned with their needs/interests, but are interested in further information.

Even in a case where you really are prevented from (eg) giving the reports without further info, you could always start with something like "Happy to help. Just so I can make sure I have the right reports, what do you need them for?"

This has worked for me in situations where I'd been the point of contact for an often-misunderstood project, and often had people asking questions about it who I didn't want to mislead with a right-answer, wrong-context response. I wanted to convey that I was asking for followup information as part of my attempt to help, rather than out of obstructionism, and from what I could tell, my querents were satisfied with this approach.

1
  • 4
    Hi there. As it stands, your answer lacks some back-up, with either data or experience. IPS expects answers to explain why it will work, if it did help their author in the past, in what ways, and what the outcome was. Because of this, your answer reached the LQP queue for review. Please consider editing your post to include such information, thanks.
    – OldPadawan
    Sep 1 at 6:55

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