The Beauty of Asking a Dumb Question

Erika Flora
Written by Erika Flora

“Do not be afraid to ask dumb questions. They are easier to handle than dumb mistakes.” – Unknown

Use A Dumb Question To Your Benefit

A well-placed dumb question can bring about tremendous benefit at work. I’m not saying you should behave like a dummy, of course. Quite the contrary. What I am talking about is forcing yourself to look at a situation as a newcomer – viewing it with fresh eyes in a way that boldly questions the way things are done. Ask for clarity and ensure people are communicating clearly (especially with acronyms, which I hate with a passion. More on that later.)

Working as an outside consultant, I am often the newcomer. I ask a lot of dumb questions in this role – both to gain understanding and to keep myself from making assumptions about new situations. A great “dumb question” is not judgmental; it gets to the root of what’s really going on. It gets people thinking about what they are doing and why, often illuminating situations that organizations may not realize are confusing or in need of overhaul. We sometimes do really dumb things at work without realizing it (making a process WAY more complicated than it needs to be, for instance). We shoot ourselves in the foot and keep on doing it.

Want to ask more dumb questions?  Start by saying, “Hey. Here’s a dumb question…” followed up by something like, “Why are we doing X this way?” and/or “Have you thought about how you could make this simpler or less dumb?”  Ok, don’t say “less dumb”.  That won’t win you any friends.  Plus, you don’t want to embarrass yourself. Let’s face it though. We ALL do dumb things – both at home and at work. It’s not about who’s doing more dumb things. Rather, we want to identify the areas where we can improve, do so in an honest way, and move forward.

Another good question is to ask people to define the acronyms they use in conversation. Never assume you know what folks are talking about. I have asked multiple people in the SAME department to define what may seem like a widely used acronym and received a different response from each. Let me tell you a little story to elucidate how important clarity with acronyms can be: I was working in IT early in my career and told one of my team members I was putting him on a new project. In my head, I knew the project was called Research Informatics Forum. What I said aloud, however, was that I was putting him on “RIF”, which he and many others know to mean “Reduction in Force” (he thought I was firing him). Suffice to say I’d ruined more than just his day and learned a valuable lesson about responsible acronym use.

Don’t be like me and scare your peers to death.  Help others out and EXPLAIN what you are talking about.  Avoid acronyms. Make things insanely clear because you may be doing or saying something that is not only dumb, but that others are too afraid of looking silly to ask you about.

To be clear, asking questions is not about finding an opportunity to lecture. Think about it this way: Do you like people telling you what to do? Of course not. So, don’t do it to others. Instead, challenge people to question the words they use and the way they work to find their own answers.  Your job is to clarify, encourage, and coach others, but let them find the answer and fix the problem themselves.  That’s the only way common understanding will be found, work will change, and that change will ultimately stick.

What about you?  Any great questions that help you clarify, challenge, or coach those around you? Any funny or embarrassing questions you or others have asked – or worse, any problems you’ve encountered because someone didn’t speak up and ask a dumb question?

Originally published July 07 2016, updated January 01 2019