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There are Dumb Questions

by Jeff Gau on April 11, 2019

I remember in grade school teachers saying, “There is no such thing as a dumb question.” The comment was designed to combat fear and inspire participation. They prompted us to ask questions, rather than pretend we know.

The concept made sense, but in the back of our minds, we all felt like there were dumb questions. Curiosity and a quest for knowledge are positive at any age — and any level of your career. But the questions we ask from the classroom to the conference room actually do matter.

Bad Questions

Questions that focus on one-offs, comments disguised as questions or ones that ask the obvious can completely derail meetings. None of them ignite healthy dialogue, deepen understanding or provide clarity — as a question should.

Good questions, on the other hand, promote better conversations and drive results. They are essential to leadership. What type of questions are you asking?

Better Questions

Here are ways to ask better questions that can make a difference:

  • Focus on execution.
    These questions promote action. One of my favorite questions to ask is: “This will be a successful meeting today if what?” Other examples include: “Who besides yourself will be involved in the decision?” or “So, what are the next steps?” The answers to these can make for a productive engagement.

  • Create new possibilities.
    These are the “why not” or “what if” questions. They reframe what’s possible and set the stage for new ideas and input. It could be as simple as asking “Why wouldn’t we do this?” Or you could ask a series of “What if?” scenarios. These thought starters should expand the realm of possibilities while remaining grounded in reality.

  • Promote clarity.
    Communication is defined by the receiver. If you don’t understand something, get clarification. Examples include: “What I heard you say was…. Is that what you mean?” or “What are we missing?”

  • Solidify commitments.
    These questions often focus on assigning accountability. A key question here is: “Who will own this?”

  • Be sensitive to time.
    Good questions help understand and set expectations, including deadlines. A key question to ask is: “What would be a reasonable timeline for this?” or “Could we get this done by the end of the first quarter?”

Good questions will move the conversation forward and drive action. Dumb questions will derail the meeting or side-track the conversation and be unproductive. Questions are not simply about whether or not you know the answer. They can create new ideas, provide clarity and build consensus. So, are you asking the right questions?

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