Yes, there are stupid questions (Here’s how to ask smart ones)

Posted by · June 15, 2012 9:28 am

“There’s no such thing as a stupid question.” You’ve been there—maybe in a meeting at work, perhaps in class, when somebody asks a half-baked question and a well-meaning facilitator tries to comfort them with this platitude. The problem? There IS such a thing as a stupid question. We all know this instinctively, whether we admit it or not. And we’ve all asked them.

Image courtesy Elliot Moore (via Flickr)

The difficulty comes in separating out stupid questions from the smart ones. Because sometimes a smart question can seem stupid, and vice versa. This can become especially problematic in the workplace where important information is scattered across various emails, outdated documentation and the minds of employees. How do you ask the right questions without wasting people’s time? How can you avoid asking stupid questions altogether? These tips will help you ask smarter questions.

Ask yourself the question first. Out loud.

Trying to answer a question can be all consuming. Your problem feels like it should be everybody’s problem, and the temptation to blurt out your question to every person you see is strong. The first step to not asking stupid questions is the most important: keep your mouth shut. Take a deep breath. And think about it. Once you’ve suppressed the initial urge to blather, you’re ready for the next step: talk it out with your rubber duck. “Rubber ducking” is a term programmers use to describe the process of talking through a project with an inanimate object. You place a rubber duck (or troll doll or stapler or whatever) on your desk and describe your problem out loud (you may want to wait until your coworkers have gone to lunch to try this). As you talk to the duck, ask yourself a few questions: Do the context clues provide the information I need? Has someone else already given me with an answer when I wasn’t paying attention? Give your mind a chance to process the question. The idea behind rubber ducking is that by verbalizing your question to no one in particular, you’ll be forced to order your thoughts into an easy-to-understand message. The very act of ordering your thoughts may trigger the answer. Have you ever started asking someone a question only to have the answer dawn on you as you were talking? That’s what the rubber duck is for: ask it the question first to give your brain time to come up with the solution.

Find the right person to ask.

You’ve thought through your question and talked it out with your rubber ducky, but you still don’t have an answer. However, you should have a pretty good idea of the information you need to know. The next step is finding the right person to ask. Stupid questions are situational. Asking your dentist if you have a cavity isn’t a stupid question. Asking your plumber if you have a cavity…that’s just plain dumb. But at the office, things can be a bit murkier. If you don’t know who to ask, you should at least be able to find someone who knows who you should ask; you need to talk to a connector. In The Tipping Point, author Malcolm Gladwell identifies three personality types: Connectors, Mavens and Salesmen. The connector knows a lot of people, and they know what those people do. Who are the connectors in your office? Don’t just think about the social butterflies, think about those who know a little about what’s going on in every department. They’re the ones who always know about layoffs before they come, and they figured out where the company picnic was going to be months ago. They’ve always got an ear to the ground. Once you’ve identified connectors, seek them out and ask them who in your organization can help solve your problem.

Listen to the answer.

It’s the moment of truth: you’re talking to a knowledgeable person. You’ve asked a smart, well thought out question. And they’re giving you an answer. Are you paying attention? Stupid questions are often the result of not listening in the first place. Listening is a skill that must be developed and practiced to be effective. Concentrate on the person who is speaking; don’t think about what you’re going to say next. Use non-verbal cues (head nodding, eye contact, smiling) to indicate that you understand what they are saying. It may help to bring a notebook with you as well with your question written out ahead of time. When they start answering your question, don’t write down what they are saying verbatim; jot a few notes and then draft a more detailed summary after you return to your desk.

Be prepared to ask good follow up questions.

Of course, the answer to your question might raise further questions. The same rules from step one still applies: you’ve come this far without asking a stupid question, don’t start blurting now! It’s okay to pause after the answerer has stopped talking to formulate a good follow up question; just let them know you need a moment to collect your thoughts (“hmmm…let me think about that for a second…”). Think through your follow up question and then present a clearly-worded query.

File the answer away for future reference.

Success! You’ve asked a smart question. But even a smart question is dumb the second time it’s asked. If you’ve listened well, asked good follow up questions and written down your answer, file it away for future reference. In a business, this is where an online knowledgebase comes in real handy. Tools like Expert Office compile the collective wisdom and information of an organization into a searchable online resource for everyone to reference. So next time you have a question, you just ask the knowledgebase first. That is, after you’ve asked your rubber ducky.