How to Ask Stupid Questions (Without Sounding Stupid)
Imagine this situation: You are in a meeting with your company’s top executives and the CEO is presenting the company’s strategic plan for the next financial year.
As he winds up his presentation, he talks about how “the top management will touch base offline and come up with strategic action plans that we can run up the flag pole in order to reach some low hanging fruit and improve our ROI”.
This stops you in your tracks.
What did he mean by that?
You want to raise your hand and ask what he meant but you first look around the room and see your colleagues nodding their heads in agreement.
It appears to you that the others have perfectly understood everything that was said.
Even though you have no clue as to what has been said, you avoid asking the question because you do not want to sound stupid.
After the meeting, while having lunch with another colleague who was in the same meeting, she discloses that she has no clue what was said, but she chose to stay quiet because she didn’t want to be sound stupid.
No one likes to ask a question and come across as a stupid person. Doing so can cause embarrassment and make you look incompetent.
However, in your professional life, you will inevitably come across situations that require you to ask questions and risk sounding dumb.
This could be anything from asking for clarification in a meeting to asking your colleague to teach you something that you are expected to know or something that comes easily to others.
The weight of not knowing something becomes heavier as you go higher up the corporate ladder, because the higher you are, the more people expect you to be knowledgeable.
However, some situations will require you to ask such questions and therefore you will need to master the art of asking seemingly stupid questions without sounding stupid.
WHY IT IS ACTUALLY SMART TO ASK STUPID QUESTIONS
There is an old saying that “there are no stupid questions”.
However, many of us still refrain from asking questions because we do not want to be seen as stupid.
While it might seem counterintuitive, asking stupid questions is actually a smart thing to do.
Below are some reasons why.
Asking Stupid Questions Helps You Acquire New Knowledge
When you ask a stupid question, you might sound stupid for a few minutes, but you will learn something.
On the other hand, if you refrain from asking the question, others might not realize your ignorance, but you will continue being ignorant.
So, it is up to you to choose betweenlooking dumb for a few minutes and being ignorant for the rest of your life.
For instance, let us assume you do not know how to use the office coffee machine. If you ask a colleague how to use it, they might think that you are dumb, but they will teach you how to use it.
On the other hand, if you choose not to ask, no one will be aware that you do not know how to use it.
However, you will always have to wait for someone else to make the coffee since you cannot make it on your own.
Therefore, if you find yourself in a situation where you need to ask a stupid question, you should treat it as a learning opportunity.
Only by learning can you become smarter.
Remember, this might be your only chance to learn that thing.
For instance, if you are in a networking event and you find yourself talking to an expert in a certain field, it is better to ask the questions you have in your mind about the subject, even if they seem might seem dumb to them.
The person might think you are dumb, but you will gain some knowledge about the subject.
On the other hand, if you keep your questions to yourself, you might not get any other opportunity of learning from the person.
Asking Questions Shows You Are Actually Paying Attention
If meetings form a huge part of your weekly schedule, you will have noticed one annoying trait in meetings – people who pay zero attention to the proceedings of the meeting.
They will either be sneaking peeks at their phones every two minutes, answering emails on their computer or just staring off into space, lost in their thoughts.
This is very rude and disrespectful to the presenter.
It shows that their ideas and contribution is worthless.
People love being listened to and seeing that their contributions matter. One way to show them that you are actually paying attention is by asking questions.
When someone explains something that you do not understand, ask them questions for clarification. Even if your questions might come off as stupid, you are far off better than the colleague who pretends to have understood everything yet they weren’t even paying attention.
It shows the presenter that you are actually listening to what they have to say and are eager to know more.
Asking Questions Is an Indicator ofan Inquisitive Mind
Smart people ask questions, even if they risk appearing dumb. A question might appear stupid on the surface, but it can uncover a new way of thinking or lead to better solutions to a problem.
Asking questions shows you are an inquisitive person who is open to new ways of looking at things and is not afraid of trying unconventional approaches.
Asking questions even in situations where you are expected to be knowledgeable also shows that you are more committed to the outcome than to how others view you.
Remember, it is easier to ask a stupid question than to correct a stupid mistake.
Asking Stupid Questions Helps Reveal Hidden Ambiguity and Erroneous Assumptions
Stupid questions can help you learn a lot. They help uncover any prejudices and assumptions that people might have when discussing a particular topic. They help reveal the complexity of things that initially seem to be obvious.
For instance, let’s assume your organization wants to make its operations digital and you are in a meeting to discuss whether you should build a website or a mobile app for the organization.
The debate is heated as your colleagues discuss the advantages and disadvantages of one against the other.
In the midst of the debate, one colleague raises their hand and asks this:
“Why are we going digital anyway?”
Initially, this might seem like a pretty stupid question. The assumption is that in today’s world, every business needs to go digital.
However, answering that question helps uncover the real objectives the organization wants to achieve by making its operations digital.
This makes it easier to choose between a website and a mobile app, based on what the organization wants to achieve.
Asking Stupid Questions Ensures Everyone Is on the Same Page
This is related to the previous point.
Sometimes, a person with great knowledge on a subject might assume that everyone has a clear understanding of the basics of the subject.
Such a person might discuss the topic from their own perspective, leaving others in the dark.
Asking a seemingly dumb questions shows the person that everyone does not have the same understanding of the subject as them.
While the question might sound dumb to them, it will help place this person on the same page as the people he is addressing.
For instance, if you are talking to a web consultant about how to improve your online sales, he might casually mention that your website needs some SEO (a common term in the online and web industry). To them, this is a daily term that everyone should be aware of.
So, asking what SEO is might sound dumb.
However, it helps remind them that you are not an expert in their industry, and therefore makes it easier for them to explain everything to you clearly.
While it is clear that asking stupid questions can actually be smart, the secret lies in knowing how to ask these questions.
Without the proper strategy, asking these questions will make you sound stupid and leave others silently questioning your competence.
So, how do you ask stupid questions without sounding stupid?
THE PROPER WAY TO ASK STUPID QUESTIONS
It makes no sense asking a stupid question if it something you can learn through observation. This is especially relevant to things that are done almost every day and that everyone is naturally expected to know.
Instead of actually showing that you do not know how to do it, chat up a colleague as they perform the task while you subtly watch what they are doing.
You can then try to replicate what they did on your own.
While not all your questions will be based on simple things that you can easily learn through observation, it is always good to try and learn something by yourself before you decide to ask.
Practical Example: If you do not know how to use the office coffee machine, asking a fellow colleague might make you look dumb. If you want to avoid coming across as a dumb person, you can walk up to a colleague and chat them up as they brew their coffee. As you chat, subtly observe what they are doing and then return to the coffee machine later to try it yourself.
Think Before You Ask
Some questions are not inherently stupid. What makes them stupid is that they show that you did not give them any thought before you asked the question, and this naturally makes you sound stupid.
Do not simply blurt out a question the moment it pops into your head.
Instead, give it some thought and consider whether it is worth asking, and whether it will help you (or others) gain some extra knowledge.
Follow the Google Rule
Do not ask a stupid question if you think can find the answer on Google.
For instance, if your CEO is talking about the new ERP system the company wants to implement, do not raise your hand and ask what ERP means.
Instead, if you can discreetly type the term on Google to understand what they are talking about.
Even if you are talking to them face to face and you do not have the opportunity to Google the term, make a mental note of the term and Google it up once you get back to your desk.
If you find information on Google that you do not understand, you can then ask more specific questions from a more knowledgeable point of view.
The key thing here is to avoid asking questions that could be answered with “make Google your friend”.
Practical example: Instead of asking your boss how to incorporate Excel graphs into your PowerPoint presentation, you can easily learn how to do that on the internet.
Ask Dumb Questions Early
When you start a new job or move into a new industry, it is expected that you might not know a lot about the new job or industry.
Therefore, you stupid questions will be more tolerated and people will be more willing to help you out.
However, they expect you to learn the longer you stay there, so if you ask some seemingly stupid questions a year after joining the company, they are more likely to view you as a dumb and incompetent person.
You should ask your dumb questions early and often to help you learn things faster.
Start With What You Know
The fastest way to look totally stupid is to have absolutely no clue about whatever you are asking.
Therefore, if you do not want to sound stupid, do your own research into the topic before asking the question. You might even find the answers you are looking for.
Even if you are unable to find the answer, you will have a better understanding of the subject, which will allow you to ask questions from a more knowledgeable point of view.
When asking your question, you should then start by mentioning what you know about the topic, and then ask for clarification on what you do not understand.
This shows the other person that you actually put in some effort into the subject and makes them more willing to help you out.
A good way to show what you do know is to preface your question with statements such as “I’ve read that…” or “When preparing for our meeting, I noted that…” before moving on to the question.
Practical example: If you are a marketer who just moved from the automobile industry to the tech industry, you won’t be well versed with everything about marketing in the tech industry. When asking a question that might sound obvious to those who have been in the tech industry, do not say “I have no clue how to handle this situation. Could you please show me?” Instead, show what you know by saying, “I have previously worked in the automobile industry, and this is the approach we used for such scenarios. However, I understand things are a little bit different in the tech industry, so could you enlighten me on the best approach for this scenario from a tech industry perspective?”
Make a Solid Suggestion
Sometimes, your questions make you look stupid because they show that you have absolutely no clue about what you are asking.
They show that you have not given the slightest thought to whatever you are asking.
To avoid sounding clueless, you need to give a solid suggestion to show that you have actually thought about you are asking and that you only need some little guidance.
It also makes it easier for the other person to answer your question.
Even if your suggestion is not the best, it shows some effort on your part.
Practical example: Let’s say your company has just created a digital marketing department, and you have been tasked with conceptualizing and implementing the first digital marketing campaign. This is the first time you are handling digital marketing, and you will definitely have some questions. Do not go to the marketing manager and ask “Where should I start?” Instead, do some research and find out what digital marketing entails. Once you are armed with some knowledge, you can say something like, “I think we should start by creating social media pages for the business and hiring an agency to develop a website for us. Do you agree or is there a better starting point?” This asks the same question – “where should I start?” – but in a better way that makes you look competent instead of sounding dumb.
Don’t Concede Your Dumbness
One of the major mistakes people make when asking a stupid question is to acknowledge that they are asking a stupid question, which makes them sound even more stupid.
Do not start your question with a statement like, “I know this is a stupid question, but…”
Do not apologize for asking the question by prefacing the question with a statement like, “I’m sorry, but I wanted to ask…”
Doing any of these portrays you as an incompetent person and sets you up for a dismissive answer from the very start. Even when asking a stupid question, ask it with confidence.
Ask the question in a straightforward way, without being apologetic. Look the person in the eye and ask your question without fumbling or wavering.
Practical example: Let’s say you need to pull a client report from the newly implemented CRM, but you cannot recall how to go about it. You need to ask a colleague (or your boss) to remind you how to do it. Do not go to them and say, “Excuse me George, I know it’s silly of me to have forgotten, but can you remind me how to pull a client report from the new CRM?” Instead, walk confidently to their desk and say, “Hi George, could you kindly remind me the process of pulling a client report from the new CRM?”
Seek Clarification through Details
Sometimes, we ask stupid questions because we have not clearly understood something.
If someone has just explained something but you did not clearly understand them, do not concede that you did not understand a thing they said.
This will only make you sound stupid. Instead, you can ask for details that would clarify their explanation without showing that you did not understand the explanation.
A good way of doing this is to ask them to give you a real-life example of whatever they just explained.
Another good alternative of seeking clarification through details is asking open ended questions that encourage longer answers.
For instance, you can as questions like “What factors do you think drive XYZ?” or “What do you think about XYZ?”
Seek Out Supporting Opinions
Like I mentioned above, sometimes our stupid questions arise from the fact that we did not understand someone’s explanation of something.
While we might not have understood their explanation, perhaps someone else might have a better explanation that we will find easier to understand.
You can encourage such a person to voice their explanation by asking questions such as, “Has someone else here ever encountered such a problem before? How did you deal with it?”
This makes it easier for you to encourage someone else to explain the concept to you without acknowledging that you did not understand the first explanation.
Ask For Feedback from Subject Experts
Sometimes, you might be in a meeting and someone raises a point that you do understand clearly.
Acknowledging that you have no understanding of the point being discussed might make you look dumb, especially when everyone else in the room seems (or pretends) to understand it clearly.
At the same time, choosing to downplay your ignorance is a risky affair as well. It might backfire on you in case you are asked to give your opinion on the issue.
So, how do you get yourself from this catch-22 without displaying your ignorance?
A good way of doing this is by asking for feedback from people who have in-depth knowledge on the matter.
For instance, you could say, “That sounds like a great idea, but I would like to hear the COO’s opinion on the matter before we proceed. She is quite knowledgeable in this area and might provide some great insights we might have overlooked.”
By doing this, you are asking the subject matter expert to explain the concept without actually acknowledging that you do not have a clear understanding of the matter.
Ask Specific Questions Instead of Broad Questions
Broad questions show that you do not have a clue about what you are asking about, which makes you appear dumb.
For instance, if you are holding discussions with the agency you hired to build your new website, saying “I saw that PHP is better in terms of XYZ, but what makes it the best choice for our project in particular?” is a lot better than saying “What is PHP?”
However, for you to be able to ask more specific questions, you need to have done your own research beforehand to give you a better understanding of the subject.
Ask Them to Explain To a Child
If someone has presented something but you did not understand it, you can hide your ignorance but still ask for clarification by asking the presenter to explain the concept to an imaginary person.
Asking them to explain it to a child is a good option.
This is because explaining something to a child requires them to explain it in the simplest possible language.
You could do this by saying, “To make sure that everyone clearly understands this, can you pretend you are explaining it to an eight year old?”
Remain Quiet If You Can Afford To
While I started by saying that asking stupid questions can actually be a smart thing to do, there are situations in which it is a lot better to remain quiet.
If you feel with absolute certainty that asking a question will lead to others perceiving you in negative light, it is a lot better to research the question later or gain some insight into the subject before asking your question.
Assess the situation before asking your question, and if you feel that the situation calls for it, it is better to remain silent and hide your ignorance instead of blurting out and becoming the laughing stock of the company.
In the course of your day to day life, you will inevitably find yourselves in situations that require you to ask stupid questions. In some instances, asking stupid questions is actually a smart thing.
However, you need to have the right approach in order to ask stupid questions without sounding stupid.
Before asking a stupid question, always take the time to think it through and observe. You should not ask questions if the answer can be found on Google.
However, if it is an absolute must for you to ask, ask stupid questions early and start by showing what you know.
Accompany them with solid suggestions and ask the questions confidently, without acknowledging your ignorance. You can hide your ignorance by seeking clarification through details, seeking out supporting opinions and asking for feedback from subject matter experts.
However, always assess a situation before asking a stupid question, and if it is not an absolute must for you to ask the question, it is much better for you to remain silent.