There Is Such Thing as a Stupid Question!

Now come on, tell the truth: you know there’s such a thing as a stupid question! We’ve all cringed at one time or another listening to one of them. There you are, sitting at a conference concurrent session, training session, or a team meeting, and the speaker, instructor, or team leader utters those immortal words: “Please feel free to ask any questions you may have, as there is no such thing as a stupid question.” Doesn’t your heart sink, just a little, when you hear that? You look around the room, assessing which vacant-eyed colleague is already cranking away to come up with a real beauty. The statement is like giving some people a blank check! Now, I realize that in an age of consensus management and nurturing it is not considered very open minded to claim that some questions could be stupid. It is a word that we avoid using to maintain our “enlightened” status. Questions may be deemed non-essential, but never stupid. Nevertheless, stupid questions do exist, and after over 20 years in HR/staffing, I have certainly heard my share of them. Agreed, most questions are not stupid. They are tools by which we learn, reaffirm, have explained, or discover a new path which as of yet is obscured by doubt or missing information. To me the origins of good questions include (but are not limited to):

  • The speaker was obscure or failed to provide sufficient detail to allow you to develop a clear concept.
  • In a roomful of diversified experience, not everybody has the same knowledge base with which to consider what he or she are being told or taught. What is obvious to some remains unclear to others.
  • The subject matter is contrary to past practices, and clarification is needed to prevent misunderstanding or misapplication.
  • The instructor failed to follow up on what you believe to be the next logical consequence of their statement.
  • A weak speaker had a great story to tell, but no real storytelling ability.
  • The meeting needed to be redirected back on course after veering into uncharted waters.
  • A junior person needs more guidance than a senior person, and therefore more direction or definition to fully understand the topic. Consequently they may ask questions that are obvious to those with more experience. But that does not make them, or their questions, stupid. We all were once classified as “less than five years experience.” Tolerance of those who need to learn what you already know is the hallmark of the true professional.

These areas and others constitute the basis for “intelligent questions.” But there are those out there right now, getting ready for a meeting, to which another whole set of rules apply. From them we often are tormented by the “stupid questions.” Over the years I have cataloged what I feel is a pretty definitive family of stupid questions. I have grouped them under titles that to me signify what the basis of these questions actually is and why enhanced knowledge is rarely the intended goal.

  • Sound of my own voice. This person just cannot sit longer than 30 minutes without hearing his or her own voice. It is their way of stating their presence and importance. They assume that in any situation in which someone is talking, it should be them. The question seldom has any importance, relevance, or urgency. It came to them and they spoke. Your ears exist to serve their self-proclamation of continued existence in the universe. Their battle cry: “I was just thinking…”
  • I speak for everyone else. This person, without election or consultation, assumes that the topic bothering them bothers everyone else. They claim to be speaking for the group. All to often the group sits there amazed that the point so clear to them is so obscure to this person and instantly resent the assumption that they too need smaller words spoken more slowly to keep pace with the content. Their telltale comment: “I am sure I speak for everyone when I say…” I’m sure they don’t ó why aren’t they?
  • Challenge the instructor. This questioner just cannot help but try and make a person who is on the spot feel uncomfortable or ill-prepared. Their questions are often off the mark or off the page of the day’s planned discussion. This kind of question serves as a way of validating the questioner’s intelligence by calling someone else’s into question. They use their cache of the obscure to keep the meeting off the main point. Their opening comment usually starts with something like: “Do you mean to tell us that you are not aware of the terms of the Treaty of Ghent?” This question may have relevance in a history class, but not a compensation analysis seminar.
  • I was talking when you explained this. This is the person with no meeting etiquette. They talk and joke in hushed tones with the person sitting next to them. Everyone else is on page 19 of the instruction manual, and they’re still on page 7. Suddenly, they realize they’re adrift, and to “catch up” they ask the instructor to repeat what she explained ten minutes ago. Your time is theirs to spend. The giveaway goes like this: “I seem to have lost track of the discussion…” Their fellow traveler is making faces as he or she says this.
  • It may never happen, but… This person cannot help but take an everyday issue and bend and twist it into a possible event that may occur once in every 100,000 event occurrences during leap year, in a hurricane, with an earthquake occurring in San Jose. Despite the lack of any chance of this hypothetical event ever occurring, they still want to spend 30 of the 60 minutes allotted for the meeting devoted to their brainchild: “This may be a little off the wall, but what if Darth Vader was an HR VP and Luke Skywalker was…”
  • I never go “offline.” This person feels that issues only important to them need to be shared with others as a way of educating those beneath them or impressing their betters. Their battle cry: “If it matters to me, it should matter to you!”
  • I’ve got a story to tell. In a room with 50 HR/staffing professionals who have over 500 years of accumulated experience, this person constantly feels that there is a desperate need for them to interject their own little version of the situation to “help the instructor” make the point. The telltale opening of the statement in that mode is: “I know what you are talking about. I had a similar occurrence back at ABC…” Well, if it is similar, hasn’t that point already been covered? All HR/staffing professionals have a wealth of stories to tell, but most of us have also heard all of them as well. We do not need to pay a registration fee to hear someone else’s.
  • Axe to grind. Traditionally this person feels they do not belong at the meeting or session. Their questions are aimed at belittling the process or intent of the meeting to express their contempt with all present. Their question may well begin, “This could well apply to some people here, but in my world…” They refuse to accept that all knowledge is worth obtaining and learning is never an exercise in futility.
  • Do you know who I am? Some senior staff members have a hard time listening to others. They feel the need to validate their position by assuming the right to speak out during the instructor’s time, making and adding comments as if they were sharing the platform. Usually without asking, they just break in and speak. They will interject with something like: “Hey, it’s my nickel. This training is being paid by my budget!”
  • Repeat repeaters. These people usually sit in the front so you can watch them as they nod their head constantly, in acknowledgement of every word spoken by the instructor. Often they will make little faces, laugh quietly, or exclaim in a hushed stage voice, “I know what you mean, happens all the time.” They act as if they and the instructor are co-workers, on the same page, and everything being presented is old hat to them.
  • Before-the-break minutia. After two and a half hours of session, with the instructor in the middle of announcing a fifteen-minute break, this person will bring up a complex and obscure point requiring at least ten minutes to ask and, if dealt with, an hour to discuss. I suspect these people do not drink coffee or water, and do not sense the urgency of these breaks for those who do. They seem to not accept the fact that classes always begin again “after the break.”
  • It’s in the handout. These are the folks who never read material ahead of time or follow along with the course material. They will ask questions about information that is sitting on the page right in front of them. They will ask for a URL with a glossary of URLs staring them in the face.

I believe that all learning has value. Most questions asked with the intent to learn have merit and a place in any discussion. But there is a litmus test for all questions that can pretty quickly reveal if a question is stupid or not:

  1. Is it relevant to the topic currently being discussed?
  2. Does it add value to the discussion or merely noise?
  3. If you heard someone else asking this question, what would you think?
  4. Am I spending other people’s time with respect?
  5. Is the question one easily answered with a little effort on your own part? Is it reflective of laziness?

When you ask a question, it is also a reflection of who you are. If your goal is to prove that you have not been paying attention, cannot follow a topic without spinning off in irrelevant directions, cannot read a simple sentence in front of you, or have serious personality flaws that require the spotlight always be focused on you, ask away. But the people in the room with you may also be peers in industry, potential clients, future bosses, and networkers of influence. When the meeting is over and they are talking to someone about the conference, what do you want them to say about you?

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  • “Wasn’t he/she the one who thought the Treaty of Ghent was reflective of current HR/staffing issues and wasted a half hour listening to themselves talk? I feel sorry for the people who have to listen to that person all day.”

Or…

  • “Was he/she the one who asked that pointed and directed question about the conflict between timely processing and detailed screening? Good question, well asked. I could use someone like that in my organization.”

We are in the influence business. Our effectiveness is in direct proportion to our ability to influence the decisions of others. When we speak, we add or detract from how those people we work with perceive us. Seek the answer to your questions, but consider the best way to both resolve the question and maintain your image as a person with noteworthy intelligence and a good sense of situational awareness. We are all hear to help each other and asking and answering questions is one of the ways we do that for each other. Never hesitate to ask a valid and useful question. But when the urge to ask a question overwhelms you, remember this: “It is better to remain silent and make people wonder if you are not bright than to speak and remove all doubt.” Then do the right thing. Any questions? Have a great day recruiting!

Ken Gaffey (kengaffey@comcast.net) is currently an employee of CPS Personal Services (www.cps.ca.gov) and has been involved in the Department of Homeland Security, Transportation Security Administration project since its inception. Prior to this National Security project Ken was an independent human resources and staffing consultant with an extensive career of diversified human resources and staffing experience in the high-tech, financial services, manufacturing, and pharmaceutical industries. His past clients include Hewlett Packard, First Data Corporation, Fidelity Investments, Fleet Bank, Rational Software, Ericsson, Astra Pharmaceutical, G&D Engineering, and other national and international industry leaders. In addition to contributing articles and book reviews to publications like ERE, Monster.com, AIRS, HR Today, and the International Recruiters Newsletter, Ken is a speaker at national and international conferences, training seminars, and other staffing industry events. Ken is a Boston native and has lived in the greater Boston area most of his life. Ken attended the University of South Carolina and was an officer in the United States Marine Corps.

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