3 ways to handle (just about) any dumb question

Soft Skills“There is no such thing as a dumb question,” Carl Sagan assures us in his book, The Demon Haunted World.

Alright then, Mr. Smarty Pants: Why do pets love being petted?

All good managers embrace the idea that all questions should be viewed as a cry to better understand the world.

Well, in real life, that’s true ninety-some-percent of the time.

The rest, they are dumb questions.

Usually what makes them so is that they are asked by those who were not paying attention, didn’t bother to read the instructions, or jumped blindly into something that was WAY over their heads (which admittedly has some merit in its own right).

Fielding dumb questions is every manager’s job. It comes with the turf.

I Dare You
What’s really valuable is giving the right answers and getting good results when you’re faced with challenging questions that can come from many different directions.

That’s what makes a smart manager even smarter.

With that in mind, if you’re are either experiencing an over-abundance of dumb questions, or feel a need to better share knowledge and head-off even more questions, here are a few ideas to consider.

Look in the mirror

Do you tend to hear the same questions over and over from your clients?

If the same people keep asking the same questions, that’s usually a sign of dementia.

But, when multiple clients or employees are asking the same question, that’s a sure sign that you may need to examine your answer a bit more thoroughly.

This is a classic situation that happens all too often because some managers simply refuse see themselves as the root cause.

Create a website

Brian O’Kelley, chief executive of AppNexus, an advertising technology company, shared this remarkable idea in a New York Times interview about building great organizations.

“We created an e-mail alias called ‘dumbquestions@’ so that if you have a question that many people might be wondering about, you can send it around and everybody in the company sees it,” O’Kelley told the interviewer.

“For example, somebody wrote recently, ‘Hey, we had a couple of low revenue days. Does anyone know what’s up?’ I love having those out in the open, and then we’ll write back that a couple of seasonal things happened, and here’s what’s going on.

“Hopefully that eases people’s concerns,” he said. “I like that it’s not anonymous, because it helps me get to know who’s really smart.”

Lower the bar

Digging deeper by asking simple questions can lead to tremendous levels of understanding among those with diverse professional backgrounds and experience levels, says Alison Davis,  CEO and Founder of Davis & Company.

In other words, simple questions is how a salesperson can best understand an engineer.

Davis takes the position that there really is no such thing as a dumb question. In fact, she says, the smartest thing you can do is ask the most basic question you can think of.


Good question!

“Because the only way you’ll successfully communicate is by putting yourself in the shoes of the newest, least knowledgeable or most clueless employees,” she writes in her blog post. “To do so, you need to forget that you know anything and ask questions like these:

  • How does this work?
  • What are you trying to accomplish?
  • What does it mean? How will it affect people?
  • When does this start? How long will it take?
  • What will employees care most about?

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