Learning Lab: Ask Dumb Questions

4 min. read

When you find yourself wondering if you’re the only one confused and not sure what the heck someone is talking about, what are you waiting for!?! ASK THE DAMN QUESTION(S).

Don’t overthink it… be respectful and direct. Don’t apologize or act small about it. It’s just a question… and you’re probably not the only one who could learn something from inquiring.

  • What does {insert the obscure acronym} mean?
  • Can you explain what you mean by {insert word, phrase, or area where clarity is needed}?
  • I’m confused. Can we expand on what was just shared?
  • Have I missed something…? Let’s back up a second.

You got it! Check out the following excerpt from Burn Ladders. Build Bridges. Pursuing Work with Meaning + Purpose.

Listening requires asking questions to elicit responses and manage the direction of the conversation. Questions can be:

• Dumb
We’ve all been there. You’re in a meeting when someone talks about a situation or uses terminology they expect everyone to know, or maybe they just don’t care. Who in their right mind is going to say, “Excuse me? I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Why not? What’s the worst that can happen?
Look bad? Feel stupid? Lose your job?

Asking dumb questions is the new smart. Back in the 1970s, Peter Falk was Frank Columbo in a television series, a police detective in Los Angeles who wore a frumpy raincoat and had an unlit cigar in his hand. Columbo could hold a clinic in asking dumb questions. It was his unassuming, head scratching, I’m-as-dumb-as-a-rock attitude of asking a series of unrelated questions that culminated with, “Oh, just one more question,” that sealed the villain’s fate. He always got the bad guy in the end.

Asking questions, especially the dumb ones, needs to be a part of your repertoire. Marian Sheridan has a great way of doing this in a more refined style. It’s a simple, “Excuse me, can I ask you a question about that?” She always makes her point.

Move Over, Columbo
I worked with a senior executive a few years ago, a person who used colorful language augmented by a great Boston accent, and he spoke with the animation of a professional actor. He was bright, good at his craft, always prepared, devoted to his job and company, cared about people, and had a great sense of humor. Given his position, you would think people felt obligated to listen to him. I don’t think that’s how most people felt. I was among the many who wanted to listen to him because he was such a pro at asking dumb questions. In public, he toned it down. Well, sort of. If he was in a meeting, particularly with other executives, and he heard something he thought was illogical or “just plain stupid,” from somewhere deep in his I’m not very smart persona came: “So, let me see if I got this right. You’re saying we should not discuss this issue with our staff, which is exactly the opposite of what you said last week in a town hall meeting where you said to them—as I stood beside you—that we would be completely transparent on this issue. Have I missed something?” I can see him in action now. He was a pro.



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About the Ladderburner Learning Lab:
In Burn Ladders. Build Bridges. Pursuing Work with Meaning + Purpose, Patterson shares an essential formula for Ladderburners in pursuit of more at work. Chapter 7 dives into two of those skillsets – how to build a base of competence and credibility. This can be done through the Learning Lab – an approach to learning as much as you can about your job, the people around you, what success looks like, and how things really work inside the workplace. Learn more about the Ladderburner Learning Lab.