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Yes, there are stupid questions

Posted in the following categories: Life Lessons, Problem Solving

When I first became a professor, I’d pause from time to time during class and ask, “Does anyone have a question?”

Nine times out of ten, no one would raise their hand. I’d move on, confident that I’d done a stellar job of explaining the material.

I was wrong. The exam answers made it clear that there were plenty of students who weren’t getting it.

So I decided to run an experiment. Instead of asking, “Does anyone have any questions?,” I began to say, “I’ll now take your questions,” or even better, “The material we just covered was confusing, and I’m confident there are plenty of you with questions. This is a great time to ask them.”

The number of hands that went up increased dramatically.

I realized that “Does anyone have any questions?” was a stupid question. I had forgotten how hard it is for students who pride themselves on their intellectual powers to admit that they didn’t understand something in a crowd of peers.

My reframed question made it easier for students to raise their hands. It made it clear that the material was difficult and I expected there to be questions. With this reframing, my desired outcome (more questions from students) became the norm—not the exception.

We ask stupid questions all the time outside the classroom.

If you ask a new employee, “Everything going well so far?,” you’re not really asking for their opinion. You’re making a statement (what you really mean is “I trust everything is going well.”) In most cases, this “question” will produce a response that will parrot your assumption instead of revealing how they really feel.

If you ask a team member, “Are you facing any challenges?,” most will say no. They might fear that their admission will be seen as a weakness. You’re more likely to get an honest response if you ask: “What challenges are you facing right now?” That question presumes that challenges are the norm, not the exception.

Research supports this approach. In one Wharton study (cleverly titled “There is such a thing as a stupid question”), participants were asked to play the role of a salesperson selling an iPod. They were told the iPod had crashed twice in the past, wiping out all the music stored in it. The researchers were curious what types of questions in a role-played negotiation would lead the sellers to come clean with the problem. They tried three different questions.

“What can you tell me about the iPod?” prompted only 8% of the sellers to disclose the problem.

“It doesn’t have any problems, does it?” increased the disclosure to 61%.

“What problems does it have?” led 89% of sellers to disclose the freezing issue. Unlike the others, that question presumed that there were problems with the iPod, leading the sellers to open up.

Werner Heisenberg, the brains behind the uncertainty principle in quantum mechanics, had it right: “What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.”

When we reframe a question—when we change our method of questioning—we also change the outcome.

P.S. Contrary to popular wisdom, breakthroughs often don’t begin with a smart answer. They begin with a smart question.

If you’re interested in learning actionable strategies to ask smarter questions and make better decisions, join 18,000+ learners who took my LinkedIn Learning course, Crafting Questions to Make Better Decisions. If you’re not a LinkedIn Learning member, you can sign up for a free trial. 

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