I ask questions … and then I answer them

Given what we currently knew about Andy, it was possible that “something terrible” really had happened to him. As a man in his twenties, missing overnight on the streets of London, the highest-ranking fear would probably be some form of motor accident or a mugging. In fact, Andy had fallen victim to neither. Andy was fine. It was a different matter for his friends, however. They were worried sick. My own friend was distracted by their fears and I was getting stressed out hearing about it all.

But Andy was fine. I’ll tell you just how fine he was in a moment. First, let’s focus on the job in hand.

Figuring it out

To show you what I figured out on that July morning, I need to repeat what my friend told me. But this time I am going to tell it differently. I am going to interrupt the tale with the thoughts that came into my head as my friend was speaking. Stick with me and you’ll quickly see why:

Something terrible has happened.

Hearing that, my brain reacted – just like most people’s brain – with the thought:

What terrible thing has happened?

To anyone who knows what has happened, it’s pretty clear that the answer wasn’t what my friend actually said next.1“Something terrible has happened. You know Andy. He’s from Manchester. He has been staying with my housemates. They all went out for a pizza last night and then they were going on to the cinema. My housemates went on their bikes and Andy took the Number 22 bus. Andy never arrived at the cinema. They haven’t seen him since.” It wasn’t something about a bunch of people eating pizzas on the way to see a film. The real answer was:

Andy’s gone missing.

That short sentence would have taken us to the nub of the problem. Someone going missing is, indeed, terrible. And, if you or I had been told that “Andy’s gone missing”, I think we would both start to think something along the lines of:

Who is Andy? And what exactly do you mean by “missing”?

The answer to those two questions would have been:

Andy is a friend who has been staying with my housemates. He was supposed to meet them at the cinema last night, but he didn’t show up.

Now, I can’t be sure how you would react to that, but I would want to ask:

When was Andy last seen or heard from?

(Good question, even if I say so myself!) And the answer would be:

The last time my housemates saw Andy was at the pizza restaurant before they set off.

The next question is pretty obvious:

How did they lose him?

… to which the answer is:

My housemates went by bike and Andy went by bus.

It would have been a very strange conversation indeed if I had interrupted with questions like that. And I’m not sure any of my friends would stick around for long if I actually spoke to them in that way. But, fortunately, I didn’t (and I hope I never would). I just imagined the questions. And that led me to the big insight. Just suppose my friend had recounted her story using the second sequence, without any of my interrupting questions. It would have sounded like this:

Something terrible has happened! Andy’s gone missing. Andy is a friend who has been staying with my housemates. He was supposed to meet them at the cinema last night but he didn’t show up. The last time my housemates saw Andy was at the pizza restaurant before they set off. My housemates went by bike and Andy went by bus.

See how much easier it could have been if my friend had told me the story in that sequence – and had done so of her own accord. It would all have made perfect sense. And telling her story in that order would have answered all my questions just as soon as I had thought of them. There would be no need for me to ask any of them.

Above all, the most important question would have been answered first: What terrible thing has happened?

Notice, also, how the revised sequence dispenses with some unnecessary information. We didn’t really need to know that Andy was from Manchester. Or what number bus he was on.

The fact that Andy lived 200 miles away from London possibly explained why he didn’t have a bike when all his friends did. And the bus number is something the police would have asked if they been called in. So it’s important that those two pieces of information don’t get forgotten. But I wasn’t the person who would be calling the police and I didn’t need to have that information in order to understand the gravity of the situation my friend was faced with.

People often impart information in the order in which it has happened. It’s the easiest way to remember the information and requires the least amount of thought or pre-planning when we recount the story. But that’s not the best way to pass information on. Not if your aim is to help the recipient. If you want the recipient of the information to understand and appreciate its importance, the best way to present it is to put the information in the sequence which is the most natural for the person you are communicating with.

There are lots of different ways of doing that, as I have learned. I will work through a number of them on the next page of this website. But, in this specific case, the most helpful way for me to hear the information was to learn the key point as soon possible and to have it followed up with the answers to the questions that would most naturally occur to me. My friend had done almost the exact opposite. Other situations call for other techniques, as we will see. But being helpful to the person we are communicating with is the one constant rule that will guide us towards the best technique to use in any given situation.

It’s important not to be inconsiderate of my friend’s position. She was stressed out when she told me about Andy going missing. So it’s not the least bit surprising that she wasn’t in the right frame of mind to construct her conversation to suit me. I was aware of that fact at the time and I’m well aware of it now. But the incident taught me that, if we have the time to be calm and rational, we can aim to present information in the most helpful way possible.

In the years since this event happened, I have also learned that, with practice, it can become almost second nature to re-sort the information into a more helpful structure.

So what did happen to Andy? Click here to find out.

As I said earlier, Andy was fine. When he eventually got in touch with his friends, he revealed that he had run into some other acquaintances on the way to the cinema and decided that going for a drink with them was preferable to seeing the film the first group of friends were heading for. So Andy went for a beer with the people he ran into and then back to their place overnight.

How much nicer it would have been if he had told people! (We may not have had mobile phones in 1984, but there certainly was an answer phone he could have left a message on.)

Andy (if that’s his real name; it’s the one part of the story I don’t actually recall anymore) is probably a very wise and responsible person by now. But if he hadn’t been so thoughtless all those years ago, I might never have been on the receiving end of a conversation that changed the way I think about communication. I do hope he doesn’t mind that I have been using this story about his behaviour as a teaching aid for the past 30 years!

Once I had identified the idea of “interrupting questions” as a way to structure a communication, I spent a lot of time developing and honing this approach (or the “Question & Answer Technique”, as I started to call it). I soon found that it became almost instinctive. You can find out more about that by reading the rest of this page. Or you can jump to my exploration of alternative techniques, on the next page of this website, and perhaps return here later.

The Question & Answer Technique

Here’s an example I came across recently that would benefit from the Question & Answer Technique. We can work on it together.

Someone showed me an email from the building management office of the apartment block where I live. The email had been sent to a resident who was, at the time, away on holiday. There had been a leak in the resident’s apartment and this is how they were sent the news. Notice how it follows a strictly chronological sequence:

Last night one of your neighbours noticed water dripping through the ceiling in her apartment. It appeared that the water was coming from your hot water tank. Given the urgency of the problem, we had to enter your apartment to investigate.

Inside, we found there were pools of water in the boiler cupboard, but no sign of anything leaking. Your hallway floor was also “squelchy”, with water lying under the flooring. As we walked across the floor, water was coming up between the floorboards with every step.

With no sign of the leak coming from your apartment, we moved on to an adjacent apartment, where we heard a steady dripping sound every five seconds or so, from behind the washing machine. Turning off the valve leading to the machine stopped the leak completely.

Some of the flooring in your apartment has warped. Water retained under the flooring continues to drip through into the apartment below for the time being. We have contacted the building insurers to notify them of the impending claim. We have, of course, also made contact with the owners of the apartment where the leak started (who are currently away) to inform them that the water connection to their washing machine must not be switched on again until the leak has been properly repaired.

Clearly, that email wasn’t good news for the recipient. But was the news quite as bad as the writer made it appear? In addition to the damaged flooring, the opening paragraph seemed to suggest that the recipient’s hot water tank was faulty and responsible for damage to the apartment below. But, once we had reached the third paragraph, not only had the hot water tank been given a clean bill of health, the whole apartment had also been exonerated. The guilty party was actually inside a neighbour’s apartment. It wasn’t good news however you write the email, but – for this particular resident – it wasn’t as bad as it might have been.

The Question & Answer Technique demands that we give some thought to what is important. Why was the writer sending the email? (Or, to put it another way, what was so important that it warranted interrupting the resident’s holiday?) It’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? The writer wanted to alert the resident to the news that a leak has overflown into their apartment.

There has been a leak from the washing machine in your neighbour’s apartment which has spread into your own apartment.

That is our opening sentence. We might embellish it a little with phrases such as “I’m sorry to interrupt your holiday.” But, once the pleasantries have been expressed, I would want to get straight to that core message.

As soon as the apartment owner has read the opening sentence, there are several questions which I think are likely to go through their mind:

  1. How much damage has been done in my apartment?
  2. Is the damage still ongoing or has it stopped?
  3. Is someone going to compensate me for the costs I will incur?
  4. Why did the building management send someone into my apartment without asking my permission?

I can’t be certain in which order those questions might rifle through the recipient’s mind, but I’m reasonably confident that “How much damage?” would come first for most people. After that, it might depend on the state of the recipient’s finances. If they live on a tight budget, the recipient might be most concerned about any costs they could be hit with (“Is someone going to compensate me?”). Alternatively, their concern might be for personal possessions that would be difficult to replace (“Is the leak still ongoing?”). Unless the writer is sure one way or the other, they just have to make their best guess. It’s not something to agonise over. And, besides, there’s usually only so much time you’ll want to spend crafting a single email.

The last question on my list was about the building management entering the apartment without first asking permission. Some apartment owners might never even think to ask that question. I think I would just be so pleased to learn that the building management was looking out for me. But other people might be a little alarmed and want to know that a decision to enter their home wasn’t taken lightly. I suspect there are some people for whom “You’ve invaded my privacy!” might even have been their very first thought.

Unless I had some prior knowledge of the recipient to guide me, I would almost certainly adopt the sequence in which I set out the four questions above. That would lead me to write the following email:

I’m sorry to interrupt your holiday, but I think you would want to know that there has been a leak from the washing machine in your neighbour’s apartment which has spread though into your own apartment, causing some of the flooring in your hallway to warp. The hallway floor is “squelchy”, with water lying under the flooring.

We have turned off the valve leading to your neighbour’s washing machine, which has stopped the leak completely, and we have informed the owners of that apartment that their washing machine must not be switched back on until the leak has been properly repaired. The water in your own apartment is still dripping down into the apartment below and that is likely to continue for the time being.

We have contacted the building’s insurers to notify them of the impending claim.

With both you and your neighbour being away, there was no indication of the leak until the resident in the apartment beneath yours found water dripping through the ceiling into her apartment. Given the urgency of the problem, we had to enter your apartment (and then your neighbour’s) to investigate.

A breakdown of the questions and answers is as follows. If you want to skip over that, click here.

There has been a leak from the washing machine in your neighbour’s apartment which has spread through into your own apartment …

How much damage has been done to my apartment?

… causing some of the flooring in your hallway to warp. The hallway floor is “squelchy”, with water lying under the flooring.

Is the damage ongoing or has it been stopped?

We have turned off the valve leading to your neighbour’s washing machine, which has stopped the leak completely, and we have informed the owners of that apartment that their washing machine must not be switched back on until the leak has been properly repaired. The water in your own apartment is still dripping through into the apartment below and that is likely to continue for the time being.

Is someone going to compensate me for the cost of the repairs?

We have contacted the building’s insurers to notify them of the impending claim.

Why did the building management send someone into my apartment without asking my permission first?

With both you and your neighbour being away, there was no indication of the leak until the resident in the apartment beneath yours found water dripping through the ceiling into her apartment. Given the urgency of the problem, we had to enter your apartment (and then your neighbour’s) to investigate.

My version is slightly shorter than the original. The word count is down by 20 per cent. Interestingly, that is a typical outcome. When someone asks me to show them how they might re-write their work using the Question & Answer Technique (“QAT”), I almost always find that the QAT version is shorter than their original, even though I have never set out with that aim. My aim is only ever driven by a desire to help the reader.

If you use the QAT (and if you use it well), there are two additional, very attractive by-products:  

–    Any irrelevant information will be omitted from what you write: that’s because anything irrelevant won’t feature in the QAT answers. For example, the five-second frequency of the drip behind the neighbour’s washing machine didn’t naturally feature in any of the QAT answers because none of the questions suggested that the person receiving the email would ask: “What did you do when you went into in my neighbour’s apartment?”

–   All the relevant information will be included: that’s a direct consequence of answering the QAT questions.

The Question & Answer Technique works well at work

All this effort honing and practising the Question & Answer Technique really paid off because I could apply the technique in the workplace and my clients positively enthused over it (although one of my bosses, at the time, took some persuading). It worked just as well for very formal written material, where expertise and professionalism were called for, as it did for informal emails like the one above.

It’s surprisingly effective for people who are really expert in their subject. We expect a specialist to talk about their topic with great ease, but often they can’t because they forget what it was like not to understand. And that can make it very difficult for experts to explain themselves in simple terms.

How often do we say to an expert who has bamboozled us with a complicated explanation: “Could you say that again, please, in words of one syllable?” Or: “Please could you explain that in baby steps?” Actually, the syllable count is very rarely the problem. After all, “syllable”, itself, has three of them. Neither – I have discovered – is the size of each “step” in the explanation. It’s all about taking the steps in the right order for a non-expert, which is exactly what the Question & Answer Technique aims to address.

A final example (or an exercise for you to try)

Before leaving the Question & Answer Technique to look at alternatives, I have a final example, which you might want to use as an exercise to get in some practice of your own. Or you may just want to read it as an application of the Question & Answer Technique in a professional context. (My suggested solution is behind a clickable link, so you can safely scroll down the page without stumbling upon any clues before you are ready to see them.)

I have picked an example of a problem which could be faced by many people, including the guy with the damp floor that we encountered above. The example starts in the form of the following question:

I rent a flat, but there is no written tenancy. My landlord regularly asks to inspect it, and I know he has a spare set of keys. Do I have to let him in?

Before we can consider the best way to frame the answer, we need a lawyer to tell us what the legal position is. So, let’s ask one. The Times newspaper did that for us a while ago and this is how the lawyer framed his reply.2The answer shown here is taken from the Times newspaper, Property section, 8 November 2013, written by Mark Loveday of Tanfield Chambers. I’m using it here to illustrate issues relating to communicating explanations and not as a source of legal advice. The answer is presumably based on the law of England & Wales as it stood in 2013.

It is a basic principle of every letting that the tenant has a right to “quiet enjoyment”. “Quiet” in this sense has nothing to do with noise. It simply means that the tenant is entitled to enjoy the premises without undue interference. The right to quiet enjoyment may be spelt out in any written tenancy agreement, or it may simply be implied. A landlord who simply lets himself into a flat without permission would generally break this right and may be held liable to pay damages for breach of the tenancy conditions and trespass.

The only statutory right for a landlord to go into a rental property is set out in Section 11(6) of the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985. This permits a landlord “at reasonable times of the day and on giving 24 hours’ notice in writing to the occupier” to enter the premises “for the purpose of viewing their condition and state of repair”. An entry for any other purpose would still be unlawful.

For this reason, most properly drafted tenancy agreements give landlords additional rights to enter their properties, for example to allow letting agents to show prospective tenants around near the end of the existing tenancy. However, these rights cannot be too broadly worded. In September 2005, the Office of Fair Trading issued guidance about unfair terms in letting agreements, which specifically mentioned rights of entry by landlords. The guide warned that vaguely worded rights to go into a property could be unenforceable under consumer protection legislation.

It follows that your landlord may only let himself in at reasonable times of the day and on giving 24 hours’ notice in writing to you in order to look at the condition and repair of the flat.

This response builds up in stages, culminating in a definitive answer presented at the very end. This is one of the hallmarks of the approach adopted by so many people, especially professional advisers and other experts. On the positive side, it’s not a long response, so it doesn’t demand a huge amount of patience before arriving at the nub of the answer. You can decide for yourself whether you found the wait acceptable. And, in a moment, you can decide if you prefer my suggested use of the Question & Answer Technique to re-write the advice.

But, first, you might want to have a go for yourself. You may find it a little tricky, but I promise you that all the information you need is in the lawyer’s answer above. (We’re just trying to re-express what the lawyer has already said. I’m not suggesting that you should come up with a different piece of advice for the tenant!)

When you want to see how I would approach it, click here

Technical communications – like this one – usually take longer to compose than messages about everyday matters and they often need more care. This one is particularly challenging because I’m not a lawyer (and the chances are that you aren’t either). But we have the lawyer’s answer and the Question & Answer Technique will show us how we can re-express it. So let’s remind ourselves of the question we have been asked:

I rent a flat, but there is no written tenancy… Do I have to let [my landlord] in?

The answer to that was in the concluding paragraph of the lawyer’s answer:

Since you don’t have a written tenancy agreement, your landlord must give you 24 hours’ notice in writing before letting himself in. He can only do so at reasonable times of the day and only to look at the condition and repair of the flat.

I’d like to think that, even if someone hadn’t formed a fondness for the Question & Answer Technique, they would recognise that the lawyer could have started with the final paragraph (“your landlord may only let himself [with] 24 hours’ notice …”). Isn’t that what the questioner most wants to know? Isn’t it a much higher priority for the questioner than, for example, being told the name of the governing Act of Parliament when they don’t yet know if Parliament was on their side or not?

What would I write after the first sentence? To figure that out, I need to put myself in the questioner’s shoes. If I was a tenant telling my landlord he can’t come in, the landlord surely isn’t going to believe me. If I told him to come back only after giving 24 hours’ notice and then I blocked the door, sparks would fly – wouldn’t they? If I don’t want that to happen, I must surely be thinking:

What can I say to the landlord so that he understands this is for real?

Looking back through the lawyer’s answer, we find this:

Section 11(6) of the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985 is the relevant law here. It allows the landlord to enter the property, but only on the terms described in the previous paragraph.

What comes next? This is perhaps where the knowledgeable lawyer has the most difficulty trying to put themselves in the shoes of a tenant who knows nothing about the law. To a lay person, the next question is probably not that difficult. If a lawyer has just told you that the law only “allows” the landlord into the flat in certain circumstances, isn’t your reaction something like this:

But the landlord owns the flat. Why does he need to be “allowed” in?

The lawyer’s answer to that was:

Even though the landlord owns the property, it is a basic principle of every letting that the tenant is entitled to enjoy the premises without undue interference. When there is no written agreement, this right is implied. It is known in law as “quiet enjoyment” (but don’t be distracted by the word “quiet”; it has nothing to do with noise).

With that inserted into our answer, we are nearly done. But not quite! Telling the landlord about your legal rights is one thing; what if he takes no notice:

So what happens if the landlord just uses his key to let himself in, regardless?

A landlord who simply lets themselves into a flat without permission would be in breach of the tenant’s rights and may be held liable to pay damages for breach of the tenancy conditions and trespass.

The tenant has now been told everything from the newspaper article that is relevant to their current circumstances. We could happily stop there.

But we might want to go one step further. Although the question only asked only about lettings where there is no written agreement, I can think of two very good reasons why we might want to add something extra about tenancies that are in writing. First, because this landlord, or this tenant, may decide they now want to put their agreement in writing in order to make the position clearer in future. And, second, because the newspaper article will have many readers whose tenancy (unlike the questioner’s) is already in writing. The lawyer didn’t want those readers to miss out. So, very helpfully, he added a paragraph which addressed one final (unasked) question:

Would the position differ if there was a written tenancy agreement?

A well-drafted written agreement typically gives the landlord additional rights to enter the property, for example to allow letting agents to show prospective tenants around near the end of the existing tenancy. But these rights cannot be too broadly worded or else they risk being unenforceable. This is set out in the Office of Fair Trading’s guidance on unfair terms in letting agreements published in September 2005.

Bringing all that together, we have the following complete answer:

Since you don’t have a written tenancy agreement, your landlord must give you 24 hours’ notice in writing before letting himself in. He can only enter at reasonable times of the day and only to look at the condition and repair of the flat.

Section 11(6) of the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985 is the relevant law here. It allows the landlord to enter the property, but only on the terms described in the previous paragraph. Even though the landlord owns the property, it is a basic principle of every letting that the tenant is entitled to enjoy the premises without undue interference. When there is no written agreement, this right is implied. It is known in law as “quiet enjoyment” (but don’t be distracted by the word “quiet”; it has nothing to do with noise). A landlord who simply lets themselves into a flat without permission would be in breach of the tenant’s rights and may be held liable to pay damages for breach of the tenancy conditions and trespass.

A well-drafted written agreement typically gives the landlord additional rights to enter the property, for example to allow letting agents to show prospective tenants around near the end of the existing tenancy. But these rights cannot be too broadly worded or else they risk being unenforceable. This is set out in the Office of Fair Trading’s guidance on unfair terms in letting agreements published in September 2005.

I have heard people complain that experts make answers unnecessarily difficult for their clients out of a subconscious desire to send the message: “I’ve worked very hard to get this answer and I want you to know it”. Others suggest the complexity is borne out of a more conscious desire to justify a bigger fee!

I think both of those suggestions are unnecessarily cynical. It certainly can’t be said for our property lawyer from the Times. He’s been attracting readers’ enquiries for quite a number of years, so his column is obviously very popular. He also uses an admirable economy of words. But he did include the following passage (or a variant of it) twice, which I needed only once in my answer:

at reasonable times of the day and on giving 24 hours’ notice in writing to the occupier … for the purpose of viewing their condition and state of repair.

When I ask for advice, I always prefer to receive an answer that was structured like my own answer above. I’ve learned over the years that most people do too. And that’s why I have made it my habit to give answers in this format.

Click here to hide my suggested approach

Getting more ambitious …

The Question & Answer Technique doesn’t just work for answers to a single question. If your job entails writing full-length reports and you think you might want to apply the technique in that context, the good news is that you can. I have been doing it for years. I will explain how towards the end of this website).

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