No one likes to ask a question and sound dumb – well, no one except Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. He recently confessed that he was most effective early in his tenure “when I didn’t mind sounding stupid” asking questions. An old boss from my newspaper days prides himself on his simple but essential “Dumb Guy Questions.” But what about the rest of us who aren’t billionaires or Pulitzer Prize winners? How can we ask “dumb” questions without sounding dumb?
In considering this topic, I found precious little guidance online. That seems strange given the tension that clearly exists over the quality of questions, especially those asked in meeting situations. A content marketing agency like ours has an untold number of meetings with clients who clearly know more about their businesses than do we. But we’re expected to know quite a bit. There are certainly cases in which we need to know more than we know now and the client is the holder of the necessary information. How can we ask those dumb questions? Here are my 10 rules:
1. Never concede dumbness.
Want to turn people against you before you’ve even asked your question? Then concede your “dumbness.” All too often, questions get prefaced by qualifiers like, “I know this is a dumb question, but ….” Don’t do it. You’re just asking for a dismissive response, or worse, the lingering impression that you may be dumb.
2. Don’t admit ignorance of buzzwords.
When we ask for an explanation “in layman’s terms,” we convey that we may not understand the language others use to communicate. It doesn’t matter at the moment if you don’t know BPO from EPO or RAM from SPAM as long as you don’t announce it to everyone in the room.
3. Show what you do know.
Some level of unfamiliarity with a topic like Accounts Receivables processing is understandable. Few of us spend a lot of time pondering its mysteries, right? But in asking questions about a topic with which you are largely unfamiliar, show the audience that you’ve done some work.
“In preparing for our talk today, I saw …” is a great lead-in to a question (provided it’s true). So is “I’ve read that ….” If nothing else, show your audience you’ve been paying attention with something like, “I heard you say …” before asking your question.
4. Get clarity through detail.
Don’t understand what someone is saying? Don’t ask for clarity through details, ask for details that clarify.
“You say margins in offshore deepwater E&P are being squeezed. Could you give me what you see as the biggest drivers for that?” “Could you walk me through how a situation like this develops?” “So when a situation like this develops, what’s the initial reaction?” If you’re out of ideas and need a question, there’s always, “Could you give me an example?”
5. Ask more open-ended questions.
As you seek clarity through detail you’ll get more of both if you ask open-ended questions that encourage a longer answer. “What do you think about … ?” is a good one, as is, “What do you see as the reasons for that?”
6. Seek out supporting opinions.
If you don’t understand the way someone explains a topic, perhaps you will understand someone else. Find that second voice with a question such as, “Have you or someone else there written on this topic before?” or “Have you seen any articles in the trade media that you think make this point especially well?”
7. Keep the focus on the project.
Everyone’s goal in collaboration is a complete, accurate and effective piece of work. So don’t make it about the people in the room, make it about the work product such as a piece of written content. Ask something like, “For the benefit of those who might be new to this idea, could you suggest how I could walk them through it?” And instead of asking for an example for yourself, invoke the work by asking, “Could you give me an example I could use?”
8. Ask for feedback (if you must).
Asking for feedback is a double-edged sword in that you can be found to be right or wrong. Instead of making it an either/or proposition, make it about advice. Say something like, “So in framing this argument, I could say … . Does that sound like a good approach to you?” Or, “The three factors you listed as causes for this situation are …. Have I got that right?” It’s not always a good idea to ask for feedback, but if you must do so in a way that elicits advice or details. Both can help clarify.
9. Ask what you’ve failed to ask.
I end most all my client interviews with a question that gives them a chance to discuss something that has been on their minds but hasn’t yet come up in conversation. But don’t make it about you (“What haven’t I asked that I should ask?”). Instead continue to focus on the work product by asking, “What should we cover that we haven’t yet?”
10. Save the truly dumb for later.
Sometimes it pays not to say anything at all. Very often that’s when you know a question is so basic that merely asking it will diminish you in the minds of your audience. So, research that question, learn how to ask it more intelligently, and do so in a follow-up call or email. And ask someone other than the CEO or subject matter expert. We’ve all been saved by fellow newbies and people lower on the organizational chart who still have answers. Get their help – later and discreetly. Someday you’ll return the favor.