I was a latecomer to the magic of Reddit. And by late, I mean 2017 has been the year of discovery for me.
One of my favorite threads in the Reddit world is Explain Like I’m Five (r/ELI5). It’s here that users can pose a question on any topic—whether it be astrophysics or the economics of international postage—and the community does its best to answer simply, the way they might answer a five year old.
While I do enjoy it for its simplicity, the aspect I most admire is the warm and safe environment that it has created for questions. It’s a space without judgement, where those who answer can practice explaining something in a clear, concise way. Those asking can learn how to accept vulnerability, in the hopes of forming more intelligent questions in the future and getting the kinds of answers they need.
Working at NogginLabs, you absolutely cannot do your job without asking questions of both your clients and colleagues. One of the main functions of our company is to teach, and it's extremely difficult to do so if you have no idea what you’re talking about. We have previously talked about preparing to ask a stupid question. Here are a few pointers to make sure you learn something from those stupid questions:
Try to solve the problem yourself
Before you start asking questions, you should do your due diligence in trying to figure it out on your own first. It saves time for everyone involved. In the best-case scenario, you do, in fact, solve the problem yourself. If after trying you still need to ask, you’ll have worked through at least part of the question on your own, meaning you can likely say something more detailed than, “I think I broke everything. What should I do?” I've typed this to many a programmer before calming down and trying to fix it myself. Trying on your own also means the person answering your question won’t have to walk you through the process from the beginning if you already somewhat know what you’re talking about.
If there is a topic you’re completely clueless about, just own up to it. Fake it ‘til you make it can work in a lot of situations, but sometimes pretending to understand doesn’t work. Try to fake it ‘til you make it, but if you’re still confused, use lines like, “I’m not as familiar as I’d like to be with….” This sometimes means swallowing your pride, but you’re more likely to get a useful answer if the person answering your question knows where to begin. Also remember that people who have complicated jobs are usually aware of that fact and are used to people not completely understanding what they do or how they do it.
Start with the basics
This ties in well to the previous rule about fessing up. Even if you do know a bit about the topic, ask your expert to start at the beginning if time allows. I used this strategy frequently doing interviews as a journalist because it allows you to ease into a topic and make the interviewee more comfortable. If you get good at it, this basic first question can lead to an amazing tangent full of incredible information and, on rare occasions, you may not have to ask many more questions because your interviewee runs with it. It’s also a great time to make some quick notes on topics you’d like to revisit later, once you have some context.