Is there such thing as stupid questions?

Your teachers probably told you that, no, there isn’t. Advice columnist Dear Abby would agree. In 1970, her column appeared in the Milwaukee Sentinel with this response to “Wants to Know, but Hates to Look Stupid”: 

“There is no such thing as a stupid question if it’s sincere. Better to ask and risk appearing stupid than to continue on your ignorant way and make a stupid mistake.”

The idea behind the no-stupid-questions mentality is a rosy one: in our pursuit of knowledge, we shouldn’t hold back from getting the information we need. But that doesn’t stop you from rolling your eyes when you’re asked to explain something you just explained twenty seconds ago. 

Whether or not a question is stupid, though, there are some we need to stop asking, and some we need to ask in better ways.  

Questions we should stop asking (or think twice before doing so)

A former managing editor of the Lake County Record-Bee remembers a string of questions she once answered about a fireworks display. (To summarize: When do they start? At dusk. When’s dusk? When it gets dark. When does it get dark? It varies. What does that mean? Long sigh.)

Following that encounter, she published a list of questions that drove her crazy:

  • Those questions that have already been answered, but the asker wasn’t listening or paying attention.
  • Questions that can be answered with a scant amount of research and less than a minute of time.
  • Questions of which the answer should be painfully obvious to any person with a pulse who has lived on this earth for more than a decade.

Then there are those with answers that don’t really matter. There’s not much point in asking someone what kind of tree they’d be, if they were a tree.

There’s a common thread between these points: these types of questions don’t demonstrate respect for the time and effort involved in providing an answer. 

How to turn bad questions into good ones

The point of a question is to learn what someone else knows. In the context of your organization, it’s important because questions are used to learn, coach, build relationships, make sales and so much more.

If your employees aren’t getting what they need out of these interactions, they’re losing out on productivity, and may feel frustrated, confused and unsatisfied. 

Good questions beget good answers. It may seem counter-intuitive, but to ask a good question, think about the answer you want first. 

What specifically do you need to know?

The best questions are one sentence long and get to the point. Any longer and the other person gets mired in detail, or they’ll have a harder time figuring out what’s actually needed. (It’s fine to spend some time setting up the context around the question, though.)

How much depth do you need?

A yes/no question will get you a yes/no answer. To get more detail or explanation, use open-ended questions starting with “who,” “what,” “where,” “when,” “why” and “how.”

Are you influencing the answer?

Leading questions have a predictable outcome. They’re the ones phrased so “yes” is the easiest answer or there’s a limited number of options presented. An open-ended question is the best solution for a more useful and neutral response.

Is it the right time to ask?

Ask a question to someone who’s busy or under a lot of stress and you probably won’t get the best answer. If it can wait until they have a little more time, you’re more likely to get what you’re looking for. 

Did you get what you wanted?

There’s nothing wrong with reframing your question or asking some follow-ups for examples or clarification.

Questions are at the centre of what we do at Kiite, so we think about them a lot – what we ask, how we ask them, and why. 

By making sure all members of your team have quick access to your company’s information, you avoid some of the most common pitfalls: 

  • Questions that are common and repetitive
  • Questions with answers that are easy to lookup
  • Questions that are transactional

No matter the question, getting an answer should be as easy and efficient as possible – for everyone involved. 

 

So, is there such thing as a stupid question? That’s really up to you. But there certainly are bad ones we can make better, and that’s an important step. 

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1 thought on “The good, the bad and the stupid: how to ask the right questions at work

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