Are There Stupid Questions?

by | May 20, 2020 | Career Advice, Change, Musings

For many years, I have heard others say ‘there is no such thing as a stupid question.’ I have said this to new hires as they join, and I see their hesitancy to ask me or other people questions. The statement is intended to put people at ease so they will ask questions and not assume they know the answers and make mistakes that could hurt the business or their personal brand.

But as I reflect back over my career, I realize I have heard people ask inappropriate questions. Could you categorize them as stupid? Maybe. Let me explain.

As you learn, grow and develop in your career, you need to ask questions to increase your understanding, clarify what is unclear and ensure that the person you are questioning has thought through all of the possible outcomes. Questions are a natural way to seek to understand or to help others reflect. Questions are vital to our business and our success as individuals, teams, and Intel.

When you are meeting 1:1 or in small teams, it’s a lot safer and perhaps easier to ask the tougher questions. The ones that will uncover the unknown or clarify the risk associated with a particular decision or direction. When you are in a larger audience, the risk of asking a question goes up significantly. Am I advocating that you should you not ask questions of leaders when there is a large audience? Absolutely not. You should ask questions of leaders, managers, our stakeholders. However, before you do, I want you to think about the following parameters.

Who is in the audience that will hear your question? Is it a large group of diverse employees from different groups and disciplines? Is most everyone in the room from the same discipline or group? Will your question be relevant to most everyone sitting in the room? Or is it so specific that only you and a select few will benefit from the answer? If it’s the latter, then save it. Don’t ask the question at that exact moment. Send it via email or wait until afterward and approach the speaker and ask your question. Being cognizant of the rest of the audience’s time and the relevance of the question to them.

Who is the person who will answer the question? Are they the right person? Do they have the knowledge and background to answer your question? Is there someone else more appropriate to ask? I remember an open forum back when I started in Folsom in the 90s. Craig Barrett came from Santa Clara to discuss Intel’s strategy. That’s what was on the invite. There were several very good strategy questions asked and answered. And then a guy stood up and started asking Craig about why we couldn’t get more bee traps for the patio to catch the bees while he was eating lunch. Something that was important to the employee – but was so far down on Craig’s list of important and strategic things that it stopped the entire flow of the Open Forum. Was Craig the right person to ask? Or should it have been someone from the maintenance department?

How long will it take to ask your question? Will you have to layout a whole history lesson for the audience to understand the context? Or if you ask the question in a large forum, will it be easy for everyone – especially the person you are asking – to understand the context and give you an appropriate answer? Is it a well-known issue? Will folks nod their heads in agreement as you’re asking? Or will everyone be wondering ‘What are they talking about’? ‘Why is this relevant?’ Is it the question everyone wants to ask, but no one but you is brave enough to ask? Congrats! I love asking the difficult questions too! Be concise as you ask your question. Write it down and read it to others beforehand. And if it’s a two-part question, be sure to let them know of the two parts and be prepared to remind them if they forget the second part. Help them do a good job answering your question. 

What are your intentions as you ask the question? Are you seeking opinion or fact? Is this question applicable and relevant to the topic being discussed or advertised as part of the meeting? Are you trying to put the speaker on the defensive? Are you being accusatory when you ask the question? Or are you genuinely interested in the response? Will the response help you form an opinion, fall in line with the direction of the company or make different choices in your work or career? Use neutral wording as you ask your question. Ask an open-ended question (start with How or What) to elicit more than a yes/no answer. 

Are you listening to the response with respect and curiosity? Give the responder non-verbal feedback to show you’re paying attention. Don’t interrupt their response. Be a good listener. Nod your head if you agree, maintain some eye contact so they know you are following. Raise your eyebrows or tilt your head to the side if you don’t follow their reasoning. Bottom line: don’t ask questions if you aren’t interested in the answer.

I encourage you to go ask great questions. Be mindful of whom you’re asking, where you’re asking, why you’re asking and what you’ll do with the answers. Because, yes, I do believe there are times when questions could be perceived as ‘stupid’ or inappropriate.

If you have other questions you ask yourself before you ask questions, I’d love for you to add them below in the comments.

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