“There are no stupid questions,” or so I’ve heard. Then I started asking a few and found that people look at me like I’m stupid, not the question.
I guess I’ve been conditioned to suppress these questions. I’m not sure whether it results from being in gigantic classrooms, my own pride, or my dad’s recitation of the multi-attributed quote, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.” Whatever the source, I seldom said “I don’t get it.” I would, however, freely ask the questions that made me look smart, which is, well, stupid.
Not asking questions is dangerous. It’s a form of mitigated speech. In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell attributes the crash of Korean Air flight 801 on the co-pilot’s use of Gladwell’s coined term, mitigated speech.
“. . . ‘mitigated speech,’ . . . refers to any attempt to downplay or sugarcoat the meaning of what is being said. We mitigate when we’re being polite, or when we’re ashamed or embarrassed, or when we’re being deferential to authority. If you want your boss to do you a favor, you don’t say, “I’ll need this by Monday.” You mitigate.
(If you haven’t read it, the story is fascinating).
When we don’t understand something (even a word) but nod as if we do, then we are potentially setting ourselves up for failure. Of course, I’m not talking about the life-and-death, stupid questions in the cockpit, but I am talking about questions that may costs thousands of dollars and even people’s jobs. Operating with misinformation and assumptions are often traced back to avoiding the difficult inquiry, “I have a dumb question…”
So, you have permission to ask the dumb questions. Ask away:
- “Could you say that differently?”
- “I’m not sure I understand what you mean.”
- “Unpack that for me.”
Be smart and informed with more than assumptions about meaning. After all, communication is about understanding, not looking smart.