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I started a new job and it's in a fast paced environment where the company keeps track of the speed you're doing work. There are several people who's job it is to help out new people when they get stuck. Sometimes when I ask questions they say things like "what do you think you should do?" or "go to this screen, now where do you think you should go next?". I find this slightly rude though I'm open to the possibility that it's not. Is it condescending when asking a person for help, whose job it is, for them to answer your question with a leading question?

I remember at an old job my boss asked "what port does network xyz connect on?" and I said "it's specified in document abc" and he replied "I know but I want to see if you know". Thing is in most situations I'm in the middle of doing things, and at my current job I could have a customer on hold. If I'm not on the phone, the policy is I must answer the phone immediately, so this is what I mean the environment is always fast paced.

I find I learn best when people explain things to me directly, though I guess other's learn better through this approach.

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    The title of your question doesn't match the body which seems to be about you finding it rude that people want to teach you how to find answers on your own. No one really learns something by just being handed the answer on a plate so I think you need to readjust your expectations here. Or is your question more about "How can I politely tell someone to just give me the answer if it's time-sensitive?" – Lilienthal Jul 14 '17 at 8:51
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    This technique is one of the best ways to train new employees to think by themselves. It shows they care about your skills and want to help you to hone them. This is not condescending at all! – T. Sar - Reinstate Monica Jul 14 '17 at 10:49
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    @TickTack1 In the second example you give was the manager's point that he wants to see if you know the port by heart (which would be silly), or did he want to check that you know where to find that information? Because if it's the latter that matches the reasoning behind the first question which is that people who are teaching you something (in this case while answering your question) want to figure out your thought process and how well or how much you already understand about a topic or procedure. – Lilienthal Jul 14 '17 at 13:43
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    This method of teaching (asking leading questions to guide someone into coming to the answer themselves) isn't meant to just give one answer to one question. It's trying to communicate an approach to solving that kind of questions, which will lead to the answer of this question, but also others like it. – Alexander - Reinstate Monica Jul 14 '17 at 15:25
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    Why do you ask? – davidbak Jul 14 '17 at 18:00

13 Answers 13

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Whether it's condescending would depend on the individual person, situation and tone, but generally speaking I would consider this a long-term / teaching strategy.

If they simply tell you the answer, then sure, you know the answer, but you may rely on them to give you the answer in future or not really internalise why the answer is the answer and thus forget it quickly.

If they simply guide you to figure it out on your own:

  • This may give you the skills required the figure out questions you have in future without their guidance
  • You may be more motivated to try to figure it out on your own instead of just asking them
  • You'll likely remember this specific answer significantly longer
  • They can also give you a much deeper understanding of this specific problem by determining the knowledge you have thus far, following your reasoning and correcting you or explaining the specific parts you get stuck on (thanks Martijn!)
  • This can also lead to more specific questions from your side in future, as you can ask directly about the part you don't understand.

If it's an urgent issue, you can indicate this when asking the question:

Hey, I've got client X on hold. I just have a quick question: ...

But it's not unreasonable for teaching to take priority over productivity (so you can get such a response even for urgent issues), as this should lead to higher productivity later on.

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    Asking what you think you should do also allows them to follow your logic. That way to can better correct a misconception/error in your train of thought. – Martijn Jul 14 '17 at 13:13
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    I think the reason that people (like the OP perhaps) perceive this as condescending is because this is how someone would talk to a child. The missing part of that sentence, of course, is "...because they are a good parent/teacher/friend trying to help the child learn." For an adult, substitute colleague/supervisor/mentor trying to help the coworker/employee/etc. – Bryan Krause Jul 14 '17 at 17:10
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    It's not how a parent talks to a child; it's how a good teacher talks to a student. – WGroleau Jul 15 '17 at 4:59
  • Totally agree. "I'm in the middle of something" is an excuse to take a shortcut. What's important early in the process of joining a project is not quantity, but quality, building knowledge base, and right habits. – Igor Soloydenko Jul 15 '17 at 17:03
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No, it's an actual teaching technique called the Socratic method and it is very effective because it is active learning as opposed to passive learning.

Also, it gives the person insight to where you are having difficulties as it is drawing out your reasoning process. If you answer "well, I think that I should do 'XYZ'" and it's right, then they know the problem is a lack of confidence, not learning. If it's not right, they can ask you why you thought that and find where the learning process broke down.

It is not rude at all, it is a very effective teaching technique.

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    I think literally every person should know about the Socratic Method, so I'm adding a link here (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Socratic_method). The Socratic Method teaches you how to learn, and that's indispensable. – Lord Farquaad Jul 14 '17 at 14:43
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    Couldn't this 'Socratic Method' also be very useful in leading others to arrive at your point of view? (See what I did there? :-) – MrWonderful Jul 14 '17 at 18:51
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    @MrWonderful that's the "yes, yes" technique in sales ;) – Richard Says Reinstate Monica Jul 14 '17 at 19:10
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    @RichardU - Yes, but couldn't it also be used with the "yes, but" technique for disagreeing? – MrWonderful Jul 14 '17 at 19:16
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    @MrWonderful and that's EXACTLY why it's the Socratic method instead (another sales tactic ) – Richard Says Reinstate Monica Jul 14 '17 at 19:31
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Is it condescending?

No, not at all

I think you've already figured out this, and why they ask a question as an answer to your question: they expect you to understand the process, and hope that you will remember it so you don't have to ask about it again in the future.

There is also a slight chance that they really are testing you (and not just an excuse that they really don't know), and this is fine too.

If this doesn't work too well for you, try to communicate it to them. They may insist on keeping their method - respect them still because they are the 'only' source of your knowledge.

Of course, if you find yourself in a hurry, talk to them, but don't lie just to get the answer directly.

tl; dr they do that to help you understand the process. Try to ask them to provide the answer directly, but respect them if they won't. If you are in a hurry, say so.

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There are many ways to learn. Asking questions of the learner is particularly effective. Among other things, it is a way for the mentor to gauge how you are approaching the problem in front of you. The mentor needs to be aware of misconceptions that might be growing on your side so they can be addressed.

Just play along and answer the questions. It is not a "test" of your ability and it is not condescending (although that really depends on the mentor).

Also, recognize that it may be impractical for the mentor to merely recite a sequence of actions from memory. The interactivity of questions provides some valuable context and an opportunity for the mentor to think deeply about the problem as well.

As for being in a hurry... so what? Isn't it better to take the time to learn something properly and have mastery over the subject-matter than to be told a sequence of steps quickly? If you don't have mastery, you'll need help again every time there's a twist in the same problem.

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While it certainly can be annoying if done all the time or under a high stress situation, I don't think in general it is condescending or intended to be.

First, their role is as mentor to you. Simply telling you what to do will not accomplish much growth unless you are never expected to make decisions. What they are trying to do is foster decision making and solution/problem analysis skills.

When they ask you "what do you think should happen?" or "how should this work?" They are getting you to exercise your brain muscles while simultaneously learning your thought processes. By looking at how you analyze a problem they can fill in the gaps in your knowledge and mold your thought processes to be more efficient at finding solutions.

I started a new job and it's in a fast paced environment where the company keeps track of the speed you're doing work.

Here you mention that there is pressure applied to the employees to keep up a high pace of work. Because of this, they are likely trying to dissuade you from bothering them with questions that you haven't fully tried to answer on your own (and wasting their time). Thus, they are forming a habit in your brain, that you shouldn't ask for help until you've thought about the problem in detail first.

If you truly are lost, then you can say, "I thought about problem X. Solutions A or B don't seem like good options. What do you suggest?"

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I am surprised that so many are saying that it is never condescending. It can be condescending, or not, primarily depending on tone of voice and context.

I would generally say if they often seem willing to spend a significant amount of time helping you, if they take the same approach with other people, if they continue with follow up questions to make sure you thoroughly understand, and if they generally sound patient and understanding then they are likely genuinely trying to be helpful. If they don't do those things they may be condescending, or they may be trying to help but are bad at helping.

I personally have probably been guilty of using this in a condescending manner. To be completely honest, I've mostly ended up that way when I felt the person I was talking to was not putting forth full effort in figuring things out on their own...but our team requires a lot of self-directed learning, especially the legacy areas that I work on, there are questions that literally no one knows the answer to so it's up to everyone to be able to work through those things individually, since you never know what might drop in your lap.

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I think that given the fact that you've stated that it's a fast paced environment, the approach that they're taking to train you is not necessarily "condescending" as you put it but rather counterproductive. It's like having bullets flying at you and having someone demand that you keep your attention on a Sunday School lesson he or she is trying to teach you. I'd be very frustrated!

You might have a conversation with your manager about being rushed to produce AND being trained at the same time. If you feel confident in your abilities, then it's perfectly fine to ask that the "training wheels" be removed and that your co-worker(s) back off a bit. If they insist on this approach and you remain uncomfortable, then maybe it's not the right fit for you. Don't take it personally.

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Their job is not to answer your question, their job is to help you through the problem.

By asking questions they are forcing you to think through the problem in a guided environment which helps you establish a thought process for answering the same types of problems without their help in the future.

I would not think of it as condescending, but instead as them having faith that you can arrive at the answer with minimal help and them just guiding your thought process to make sure your thought process stays on the right track.

I find I learn best when people explain things to me directly

Critical Thinking Exercise: Do you learn best this way? Will this help you find the answer on your own and need less help in the future? Or do you learn the specific piece of information you are looking for faster this way?

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It is, but don't take it personally

Assisting people is a minefield for coming across condescending, especially under time pressure. When you explain something thoroughly and clearly, you re-iterate basic knowledge, which can imply the other person lacks it. If you use jargon to explain something concisely, it can sound like you're showing off. Asking questions to ascertain the person's knowledge can come across badly too, especially if you pitch at the wrong level.

It's a real skill to be able to assist people without being condescending. When under time pressure, people may not be inclined to make a big effort. Especially with the "curse of being helpful" - if you're helpful to people, you get an increasing load of queries, which management tend not to recognise as productive work. There's also the desire to make you self-sufficient, which others have commented on.

Constructive ways of dealing with it

What do you think you should do?

In general, you should be prepared for this counter question before asking, or you're leaning on colleagues a bit too much.

If you have some idea, say it briefly, and any related info, such as "I'd normally do X but I think that won't work in this case because of Y." Perhaps there's a choice like "I could do X or Y and would appreciate guidance." And if you have no idea, just say so.

Go to this screen, now where do you think you should go next?

I presume once you're on that screen it's obvious what to do? The way they phrased it is condescending, but give them a break. You got the answer you need. Thank them and move on.

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It totally depends on the question!

The context of the situation, the tone in which it's asked obviously, and also the overarcing purpose of the question.

"What do I do next?” --> "Well, what's the first thing you always reach for? Right. What does the QRM say for double-engine failure below 2000, make that 1000 feet?" ---- is a rather terrible response.

"What do I do next?" -> "well, she's not taking you back, so I would stop dating for awhile, and contemplate what has brought you to this point." ---- Is a pretty good response.

In World of Warcraft, if you walk into a town and ask other players where the blacksmith is, everyone will say "Ask a guard". People often get indignant at that, but it's because guards will mark the location on your map, which is much more helpful and players can't do that.

So for instance when your boss came to you mid-hustle and said "what's the port" you should've just shot him the answer he needed instead of sending him on a wild goose chase, especially if he too was in the hustle. See, you do it too, so you're in no position to complain.

Don't get trapped in the emotions

It seems like you're emotionally reacting to a lot of this. That's common, but contemplate this: I often see people going for emotion when they find themselves lacking skill: the emotion is a delection from the fact that they are not doing their job. And if I judge that, you can bet others do too.

So first, don't ever do it to anyone else. Not as an emotional/snark thing anyway. When you reach the point of managing or training people, that will change, but you'll know when asking a question is constructive toward their training or development.

When it's done to you, pause to consider that maybe they're trying to give you a skill bump, or know that your own inquiry will quickly lead you to a better answer. They are more experienced than you, yes?

Sure, sometimes it really will be a snark, that person is having a bad day. You know the feeling.

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Consider that your mentors may be saving you time by verifying what you know at certain steps in a process. They may be able to thoroughly explain every step, or, by briefly assessing what you already know at various points, explain only the step you're having difficulty with.

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My wife does this to me all the time. I ask her a question and she answers with a question. So I've started to answer her question with another question, this first puzzles her and gets her irritated as she catches on. I will often ask her, is that a question or answer, as I'm only looking for an answer now, but we can play the question game later. If I was to make her mad, I'll ask her how that response was related to my question?

I have tried this in a class and the students stop answering any of my questions as they feel I'm ready to pounce on them.

It maybe a good way to learn but I don't like it.

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    You: "Where are my shoes?" wife: "Where did you see them last?" you: "On my feet!" – Bent Jul 14 '17 at 22:14
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    Have you looked for them on your feet yet? – WGroleau Jul 15 '17 at 5:04
  • Guys, what are you doing with MY wife? – paj28 Jul 15 '17 at 6:58
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Maybe sometimes they don't know, but they know how to figure things out.

I once had a tech working for me who was trained on a system I was not trained on. But he seemed to have trouble making decisions. So sometimes when there was a problem, it had to go like this: He: (staring at the equipment) Me: Problem? He: Yeah, nothing coming out of X. Me: Where is X in the manual? He: (easily turns to it) Me: How does this work? He: (Explains it easily.) Me: What do you see here? He: Signal good. Me: What is downstream? Etc.

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