NogginLabs recently tweeted an article that outlined the best way to ask stupid questions. “How To Ask Stupid Questions (Without Seeming Stupid),” by Katie Douthwaite Wolf, provides the reader with a 3-step guide to making the most of those moments when you might feel a little, well, stupid.
First I thought about all the stupid questions I've asked at NogginLabs over the years: What do you mean by gamify? What is an LMS? Where is the bathroom? But after reading the article, I reflected upon all the times I was actually employing the strategies presented by Douthwaite Wolf, perhaps without even knowing I was following the model. Fake it ‘til you make it, right? The phrase might seem flippant, but perhaps there’s some logic to it. I like that the article hones in on this—on our innate ability as humans to observe and learn. Sometimes the best way to do something you’re uncomfortable with is to simply test the waters and jump in head first.
There’s something almost counter-intuitive or oxymoronic when thinking about asking a stupid question correctly. It implies that I’m aware of my stupidity. It implies that I am diving head first into a potentially uncomfortable situation. It implies that I have thought through all the possible disasters that could happen as a result of my stupid question. But when it comes down to it—what’s wrong with taking all of that into consideration? By doing so, you can turn your stupid questions into stupid questions with a point.
STEP 1: PREPARE FOR YOUR STUPID QUESTION
The first step in asking a stupid question, according to Douthwaite Wolf, is simply observing your surroundings. I think this is great advice. It’s good to get acquainted with the topic or context of whatever it is you need to know about. When I’m at work and I have a question, I do what I can to prepare for asking said question. I put together as many pieces as I can, sometimes even answering the question for myself. But once I’ve bundled together all the relevant clues, I present them to someone else in the form of what I believe to be an appropriate stupid question. I’m not trying to waste anybody’s time, of course. I can basically guarantee that everyone is getting what they want out of the situation by coming into it prepared.
STEP 2: SHOW YOUR BACKGROUND KNOWLEDGE
Douthwaite Wolf also suggests calling out what you already know. I like this suggestion a lot. It shows that you’re invested and you’ve been paying attention, but you just aren’t clear on a specific part. And that’s ok! We are not perfect and I don’t think anyone expects us to be. What is expected of us, though, is to try and understand the context of our respective work places and to do our best to succeed within that context.
STEP 3: FAKE IT 'TIL YOU MAKE IT
Finally, Douthwaite Wolf mentions my favorite trick in the stupid-question-asking process: confidence. Confidence is key when asking the stupid question. Stay committed to and believe in your stupid question. This is how you trick people into thinking it’s not stupid! My mom’s most-often used piece of advice to me has always been “Act like you’ve been here before.” For the most part, it’s pretty solid advice. (Thanks, mom!) Not only does it serve as a kind of self pump-up, it also instills in other the trust that you are carrying your own weight. These are all very good things.
Asking stupid questions is not the worst thing you can do. The worst thing, which I think your employer and colleagues will agree with me on, is never finding out the right way to do things in the first place.