Are there really no stupid questions?

I ask a lot of questions. “Explain it to me like I’m five…and rather a dunce” is one of my favourite phrases. I always want to understand things more. My brain is perpetually in beginner mode. I am curious about everything.

As it turns out, I also do a lot of user research these days. Curiosity—and the ability to ask a lot of questions—comes in handy there. Research sets my brain to a different state. And when I say different, I mean better.

When I’ve been talking to people all week, I notice that I’m a more skilled conversationalist. I ask people questions. I don’t rush to fill silences. I wait for people to elaborate. I pay more attention. (Sort of.) I pick up on subtle cues. I read between the lines for nuance, and then ask follow-up questions to follow a thread more deeply. For a week or so, I’m just a better, less self-involved person to be around.

What’s so great about questions?

A few weeks ago I was working with a group of developers who were learning how to build custom React extensions. Not exactly my area of expertise—and I was supposed to be leading them! I wasn’t exactly sure how I could best help everyone accomplish their goals.

But as the day wore on, I changed tacks. Instead of standing in front of people talking at them, I sat in the back and asked questions. Stupid questions, some of them. Questions to which I may have already known the answer. I may have looked like an idiot, and the poor developer answering all my questions looked like he may have wanted to murder me.

But by piping up with a barrage of queries, I was able to help everyone gain a clearer understanding, even if they didn’t feel comfortable asking questions themselves. Questions became a tool to guide the conversation and clarify understanding of a complex task.

This is something I catch myself doing more and more in my work. Asking questions. Sometimes I already know the answer. Sometimes I think I know the answer, but I’m wrong. Sometimes I’m right, but I learn more nuance and context around the question. Sometimes it just helps to redefine the problem space. I’ve never once regretted asking a question.

Asking questions is one of the most valuable tools for clarifying complex topics and deepening our understanding of a problem.

Why don’t people ask more questions?

Life squashes our curiosity early. I remember being reprimanded by teachers for asking too many questions. Most workplaces are littered by people who don’t particularly relish being asked questions, so that’s reinforced. Failure to answer or giving a curt, defensive response trains us to stop asking questions.

On the flip side, we don’t want to look stupid by asking questions. I notice I ask more questions in spaces where I feel more confident. If I feel defensive or like I need to prove my value as a designer/human/person who isn’t a total nonce, my beginner brain starts to recede, and I become more closed, less curious.

When I’m happy and secure, my inner five-year-old starts asking a lot of questions.

Why do we hate being asked question?

In a conversational setting, most people love questions. We all secretly like talking about ourselves or about the things we’re passionate about, and it’s validating when someone care enough to ask.

But sometimes we don’t know the answer. I think we’re just afraid of being wrong, or of looking stupid. I’ve mentored a number of speakers who are most terrified of the Q&A portion after their talk—what happens if they don’t know the answer?

There’s also a gendered side to this, particularly in tech, where women tend to get asked more aggressive questions, or questions that are thinly-veiled excuses to show off someone else’s expertise. I’ve noticed that sometimes my self-deprecating nature and beginner brain means that people can often assume I’m less knowledgeable than I actually am, which is something I’m actively working to correct.

Even with all that, it’s not a personal failing if we need to answer a question with “I don’t know.” Nobody knows everything. Knowing what you don’t know is just an excellent opportunity to go on a learning adventure.

So, are there any stupid questions?

There sure are!

Questions, like ideas, pandas, and British parliament circa Brexit, can be deeply stupid if there’s no real thought behind them. But when wielded with care and consideration, they can be a powerful tool to cut through confusion and obscurity in order to bring clarity to complex topics.

Let’s all ask more of them.