The Smart Way to Ask Stupid Questions
The most intelligent question you can ask at work starts this way:
“This may be a stupid question, but…”
Here’s why: Asking a stupid question usually eliminates the chance of making a stupid mistake.
Most of us prefer not to look stupid in the eyes of others, so we keep what we consider stupid questions to a minimum, and try to get the answers ourselves using less direct methods. The inefficiencies in this end-around answer-seeking are:
- It takes more time.
- It may still not be the right answer.
- You haven’t validated your concern about the issue with people that matter to you.
That last point is perhaps the most important. Asking a seemingly stupid question of a boss or fellow employee can have the added benefit of alerting those collaborators to an issue that may not have occurred to them. It also gives you a chance to demonstrate your engagement with an issue that may be of importance to them. Plus, it gives them the chance to show how smart they are!
However, there are smart ways to ask stupid questions that improve your chance of getting a truthful answer, and reduce the chance that your stupid question could make someone else look stupid. Here are four simple tips for asking stupid questions the right way:
Pick your spot wisely. Piping up in a group meeting may not be the best place, unless the question directly impacts the decisions to be made in that meeting. Ambushing people in the hallway may also not endear you to the person from whom you need help.
Do it privately. The person you ask may not know the answer. Asking in public may make them lose face. Asking one-on-one allows them to open up a bit and provide you a more honest answer.
Make an appointment. Draw up a short agenda of pressing questions and issues, and include your stupid questions. Tackling the needed person in the hall may put the questionee on the spot, not allowing him or her to fully think through a proper answer. You need the right answer more than you need a quick answer.
Ask permission to ask. If urgency demands that you broach the topic during an interaction in the hall, ask permission to ask the question: “Do you have a moment? I have a quick question about ….” And if it becomes clear that your quick question does not have a quick answer, ask for permission to get a few minutes on their calendar later that day.
People like to be helpful and they like to look smart. Give them the chance to do both by asking the stupid questions, but in a way that does not put the person on the spot. You do not want your stupid questions to make anyone look stupid publicly.
Bosses are fond of saying “there are no stupid questions,” and we agree. All questions, misunderstandings and doubts need to be aired and dealt with.
How you ask, though, can impact your results. Plan accordingly, and make the smart ways to ask stupid questions habitual!