The Value of Stupid Questions

If you do not ask, you do not get.  Famously attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, over the years and across all continents, this saying has survived, serving as a telling reminder that if we do not have the courage to ask, we will miss the opportunity of getting what we are asking for from those who are best positioned to meet our request.  

All very elementary, but still we find ourselves holding back, afraid of making that request or asking that seemingly stupid question. Many a time, what embarrasses us most is not so much the question of being stupid, but the admission of our own stupidity, or perhaps fear of our boldness, at asking such a question.

The aim of this article is to demonstrate the value of asking potentially 'dumb-sounding questions and to suggest how we can better rephrase the asking of such questions as an efficient strategy to attain results.

Asking questions...

will make colleagues appreciate that you are OK with admitting your uncertainty
Admitting we do not know how can be an issue of pride we need to overcome.  Colleagues appreciate honesty, and some will actually go out of their way to help;

triggers connections
In more ways than one -  on a personal level, starting that conversation can serve for you to connect better with colleagues.  It can also lead to meaningful discussion and exchanges about work policies, procedures and explain organisational ethos and objectives;

means you want to learn
Questions demonstrate that you are inquisitive and have a desire to do and present good work.  It is a sign that you are engaged and task-oriented and that you care about your work enough to check that you are doing it properly;

can avoid unpleasant situations
Better risk asking once (or twice) than proceeding incorrectly or with lack of certainty.  The latter can result in embarrassing or unpleasant situations.  Therefore, better to go back and check if you are following instructions as given rather than going ahead and then having to face unpleasant consequences later.

Although there is no such thing as asking a stupid question, this does not rule out the need for being mindful of how to ask them.  

Go back to when we were younger and needed to ask our parents/guardians for something.  We bided our time, waited for the right moment, enrolled allies, and targetted the parent/ guardian most likely to be compliant with our request.  The rules aren’t any different in our work context.  We need to be politically savvy as to when and how to time our questions. 

Some strategies you should think about ahead of asking ‘stupid’ questions:

Is the question going to put you in a good light?
We may not know the answer to the question we are about to ask, but we can think ahead and link our question to what we already do.  Our question should be phrased as if we are in need of a missing link or a starting point rather than to show that we are completely lost.

Is your question going to put your respondent in a good light?
There is something about allowing your respondents the opportunity to showcase their knowledge and to feel validated because their point of view matters.

Is the question going to result in better quality work?
Keep work the focus of your questioning.  Frame your words in relation to ongoing or future work, and seek responses that will merit an answer because they will lead to better work.  Even enquiring about a salary raise can fall under this category.  If you ask for a salary raise, it is because the quality of your work merits such a raise.

Is the question well-timed?
There is such a time as not the right time.  If everyone at the office is busy or there is some crisis going on, and unless your question is emergency-related, do not ask it.  Wait for an opportune moment.  Otherwise, it will show that you are not able to read the office atmosphere.

Pay attention to tone of voice
A question is not a request to comply. It is a genuine appeal based on the need to know or secure and dependent on the knowledge, power, and good sense of the respondent.  It should be asked confidently, and not in an apologetic undertone.

So, next time you find yourself hesitating before asking a question at work, refer to the above and bear in mind that sometimes it's not the answer that enlightens, but that (stupid) question!

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