Assessing the value of someone else's question can be risky business. Risk is elevated whenever you find yourself thinking, "What a stupid question." That's a danger sign because very few of the people you work with are actually stupid. If you find yourself thinking along those lines, you could be in the trouble zone. Just to be clear, to be stupid is to be rash, reckless, irresponsible, foolish, unintelligent, and so on. Truly stupid people don't last long in the organizations where readers of this blog work.
If stupid questions are rare, one might wonder, what are those questions people ask that so many others regard as stupid? Having in mind the possibility that a seemingly stupid question might be something else can be helpful when framing responses to what so many people regard as stupid questions.
Here's a little catalog of some of the kinds of questions that many classify reflexively as "stupid."
- Information-seeking questions
- Information-seeking questions are, um, requests for information. The information sought can be a definition of a term, or the name of a concept, or the nature of the relationships among concepts. It can be a request for an explanation of the justification of a step in a proof or argument. It can be simple data, like the age of the oldest redwood tree.
- To regard these questions as stupid is to dismiss the possibility that there is a flaw in our information distribution process. Somehow the asker didn't receive — or forgot — the information the asker is now seeking. Personal negligence or stupidity isn't the only possible explanation. These questions might actually be evidence of defects in the information distribution functions of the organization.
- Lazy questions
- These are questions that the askers could have answered with just a little bit of effort on their own. For example, suppose our public library has eliminated daily fines for overdue items, and instead suspends privileges for borrowers with outstanding overdue items. A lazy question might be, "What's the daily fine for overdue books?" It's a lazy question because that information might be readily available on the library Web site.
- There is Having in mind the possibility that
a seemingly stupid question might
be something else can be helpful
when framing responses to what so
many regard as stupid questionsan exception. The effort required to find an answer might be very small, but if the asker doesn't know the technique for finding the answer, or if the asker lacks the resources necessary to apply that technique, then the scale of effort required is irrelevant. What might seem to be a lazy question might not be. For example, a question whose answer Google can provide isn't a lazy question when the asker doesn't have access to the Internet.
- So for someone who can use Google, asking the age of the oldest redwood tree is a lazy question. (At this point, I suspect that some of you feel an urge to find the answer right now. Resist.)
- Naïve questions
- Naïve questions appear in at least two flavors. Explicitly naïve questions ask for fundamental definitions, relationships, or whats or whys. Implicitly naïve questions are those in which the asker is unaware that the answer to one or more explicitly naïve questions would be necessary for understanding the reply to the implicitly naïve question.
- Asking why our library suspends borrowing privileges of borrowers who have outstanding overdue items is then an explicitly naïve question. Asking why our library web site doesn't have a daily fine posted for overdue items is an implicitly naïve question.
- Misinformed, disinformed or disinforming questions
- These are questions one or more of the premises of which are false. In misinformed or disinformed questions, somehow the asker has acquired an incorrect perspective regarding the circumstances that he or she is inquiring about.
- Continuing with the example of our public library overdue policy, suppose our library has eliminated all overdue fines. Then a misinformed question might be, "Why are library fines so much higher for books than they are for videos?"
- One subset of misinformed questions might be called disinformed questions. These are questions for which the innocently duped asker is relying on falsehoods that were knowingly created and distributed by people or agents intent on spreading disinformation.
- A separate subset of not-stupid questions might be called disinforming questions. Although they take the form of questions, the "asker" isn't actually seeking an answer. The asker instead is using the form of a question to spread disinformation that the asker knows well is disinformation.
When someone asks questions like those identified in this little catalog, responding by answering in a straightforward manner is safer than castigating the askers for asking them. But even straightforward answers carry risks. Some possibilities:
- You misunderstood the question because it matched something else you've been pondering of late
- You don't know enough about the situation that precipitated the question
- What you think you know about that situation is incorrect
- The question was ill posed and your interpretation of it is unfortunately inappropriate
Clearly there are more possible reasons why answering in a straightforward manner can be risky. But there is a way to manage these risks. Taking your time usually helps. When someone poses a question that your inner voice tells you is "stupid," instead of responding, first breathe. Then say something like, "Good question, tell me more," or "Hmm, say more" or even "<straightforward answer>, but perhaps I misunderstood the question." Top Next Issue
Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. Order Now!
Your comments are welcomeWould you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenZLkFdSHmlHvCaSsuner@ChacbnsTPttsdDaRAswloCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.
About Point Lookout
Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.
Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.
Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.
More articles on Effective Communication at Work:
- Peek-a-Boo and Leadership
- Great leaders know what to say, what not to say, and when to say or not say it, sometimes with stunning
effect. Consistently effective leadership requires superior empathy skills. Here are some things to
do to improve your empathy skills.
- Exasperation Generators: Opaque Metaphors
- Most people don't mind going to meetings. They don't even mind coming back from them. It's being
in meetings that can be so exasperating. What can we do about this?
- The Passion-Professionalism Paradox
- Changing the direction of a group or a company requires passion and professionalism, two attributes
often in tension. Here's one possible way to resolve that tension.
- Why Dogs Make the Best Teammates
- Dogs make great teammates. It's in their constitutions. We can learn a lot from dogs about being good
- The Major Annoyance of Mini-Digressions
- Digressions are expensive. They limit progress in meetings. They're most noticeable when they deflect
the entire meeting from its stated purpose. There is another kind of digression that's less noticeable,
more common, and just as costly.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming November 30: Avoiding Speed Bumps: II
- Many of the difficulties we encounter when working together don't create long-term harm, but they do cause delays, confusion, and frustration. Here's Part II of a little catalog of tactics for avoiding speed bumps. Available here and by RSS on November 30.
- And on December 7: Reaching Agreements in Technological Contexts
- Reaching consensus in technological contexts presents special challenges. Problems can arise from interactions between the technological elements of the issue at hand, and the social dynamics of the group addressing that issue. Here are three examples. Available here and by RSS on December 7.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenZLkFdSHmlHvCaSsuner@ChacbnsTPttsdDaRAswloCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.
Get the ebook!
Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:
- Get 2001-2 in Geese Don't Land on Twigs (PDF, )
- Get 2003-4 in Why Dogs Wag (PDF, )
- Get 2005-6 in Loopy Things We Do (PDF, )
- Get 2007-8 in Things We Believe That Maybe Aren't So True (PDF, )
- Get 2009-10 in The Questions Not Asked (PDF, )
- Get all of the first twelve years (2001-2012) in The Collected Issues of Point Lookout (PDF, )
Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info