I was listening to a recent episode of the Packet Pushers Podcast about SD-WAN and some other stuff. At one point, my good friend Greg Ferro (@EtherealMind) asked the guest something, and the guest replied with, “That’s an excellent question!” Greg replied with, “Of course it was. I only ask excellent questions.” I was walking and laughed out loud harder than I’ve laughed in a long time.
This was also a common theme during Networking Field Day. Everyone was asking “great” or “excellent” questions. I chuckled and told the delegates that it was a canned response that most presenters give today. But then I wondered why all our questions are excellent. And why I hated that response so much.
Can You Define “Excellent”?
The first reason why I think people tend to counter with “excellent” praise is because they are stalling for an answer. It’s a time-honored tradition from spelling bees when you don’t know how to spell the word and you need a few more seconds to figure out if this is one of those “i before e” words or not. I get the purpose of defining something of non-native speaker origin. But defining a simple word? It’s such a recognizable trope that we incorporated some of the fun into a video we did a few years ago at Aruba Atmosphere:
Watching my friends “stall” while they’re trying to figure out how to spell a made up word still cracks me up.
More importantly, in technology this response is designed to help the engineer or tech person spend a few critical seconds formulating their response and matching it to the question that was asked. Even just a second of memorized, practiced response repetition means you can think about how to answer the question without leaving silence.
We live in a world today where silence is bad. We’re so used to hearing noise and other kinds of filler that anything regarded as contemplation or thinking is negative. Instead, we must always be talking and making an audible effort to answer things. Even if it means repeating the same phrases over and over again. It’s bad enough when it’s a pause word. It’s really bad when it’s the same word at the beginning of a sentence for almost an hour. “That’s an excellent question” is quickly becoming the response equivalent of “um” in the vocabulary.
High Praise, Indeed
The other reason why I think people are quick to praise “excellent” questions comes from a bit of social trickery. Sadly, too many sales opportunities descend into an antagonistic relationship where salespeople feel they have to use every trick in the book to separate people from their money. They use tactics designed to inflate egos and make people feel more important so they feel like their making a good decision.
Think about the suspect phrasing here. It’s not a “good” question. Or even a “great” question. It’s almost always an “excellent” question. And I’d argue that the more likely a person is to sell you something, the more likely that person is to remark that all your questions are excellent.
This kind of puffery can be infuriating to people. It’s not unlike the standard “have you lost weight?” opening when you see someone for the first time in a long time. It’s verbal garbage. You don’t believe it. They don’t believe it. It’s rare that people even acknowledge it. And yet, we find ourselves repeating it over and over again. “That’s an excellent question” is ego stroking at its finest.
And the worst part? You’re not praising the person! You’re praising their question. You’re really saying that the words they used were good enough to merit praise. It’s not even that you are praising the person as much as their output. If you really, really, really feel the need to do this, think about doing it in a way that calls out the person asking the question instead:
- Wow, you’re really paying attention here!
- Did you read ahead?
- You’re really getting this.
- I’m very impressed with your grasp of this topic.
See how each of these responses is designed to work with the person in mind and not just the question? Sure, there s a bit more ego stroking here than with a simple “excellent” question. But if you’re just trying to flatter the person and you don’t even care about the quality of the question why not just sell out all the way? If the point of the response is to make a person feel good about themselves then just go all out.
I’m not likely to change the world overnight. Lord knows I’ve lost the battle against GIF and on-premises enough already and those are grammatically correct. The “excellent” question thing is a quirk of speech that isn’t going to just disappear because we bring it to light. People are still going to stall or try to boost the questioner’s ego. They’re still going to fill silence or make people full of themselves. Instead of falling back on the tropes of bygone eras, be a different person next time. Instead of the knee-jerk reaction of excellence, take a moment to think and praise the person asking the question. Then give a solid answer that they need to hear. You’ll find it a lot more effective. In fact, I’d venture to say it’s an excellent strategy.
Thanks Tom. Excellent questions are literally the worst.
Tom, this is why I usually preface my questions with “I know this is an incredibly dumb question, but…” because then everyone is on the same page that it’s a dumb question, and any attempt to couch it as an “excellent” question can be seen right through by everyone present.