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Asking Good Questions: Recall vs. Analysis Questions

4 Comments 04 May 2013

Sometimes when I ask people questions, I get the sense that I’m being lied to. Not in a way where the person is trying to deceive me, but in a way where the facts don’t line up with their answers.

I think the problem is that I ask questions incorrectly.

I have a theory that when you’re trying to get information from someone about themselves, there are two categories of questions you’ll ask, and if you don’t know the difference, you’ll probably be frustrated by the answer.

The first is a recall question. These are questions that require a person to remember concrete, past events. It requires a person to dig up the most accurate recollection of their behaviors and actions.

For example, if you ask someone “How many times did you go to the gym last week?” the person simply has to dig into his brain and count the number of times of he went the pervious week. It’s a relatively simple mental task, and you’re likely to get an accurate response. “I went to the gym twice last week.”

Now, the other type of question is an analysis question. This will require the person to not just recall events, but also analyze other pieces of information.

Sticking with the gym example, let’s say you ask someone “Do you go to the gym often?” The person has to first a) decide what “often” means, which is subjective, and b) determine if he meets that subjective criteria of “often” for an undefined period of time.”

In addition, the person’s answer will be affected by his ego or view of himself. If fitness is an important part of his identity, he will probably lean towards saying “yes” regardless of how many times he actually goes to the gym per week. If the person has been feeling crappy about their level of fitness or unhappy with their experience, he might say he doesn’t go often enough but he should, even if he consistently goes three to four times a week.

Both types of questions can be useful to you, but it’s important to recognize the difference.

As a rule of thumb, a recall question usually has a concrete action and a concrete time period associated with it: “How often did you do X in the past Y months?”

An analysis question will have undefined terms that can be interpreted subjectively. “Do you think you’re a good driver?” “Are you in shape?”  “Do you eat healthy?”

Knowing the difference between these two types of questions (and knowing when to use each type) can get you better and more useful information.

  • Brett

    Nice post! Thinking about it now, I always use “analysis” questions. Interesting. Might start testing some analysis questions and see what the responses are like.
    Thanks Dale.

    • Brett

      CORRECTION
      Might start testing some “recall” questions*

    • TrekDek

      Thanks Brett! I probably over-simplify things a bit but it is definitely a good starting point when you’re trying to learn things from people.

  • Nabill

    This reminds me of a post by Eric Barker I read recently on the importance of emotional context (http://www.bakadesuyo.com/2013/07/feel-fantastic/). Basically, the order of questions can also matter. If you ask someone a question that will evoke a positive or negative emotional response, this feeling in the brain will carry over to the next question you ask them. There’s such an art to conversation!

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