Asking a potentially ‘stupid’ question is a smart thing to do

Do you find yourself in situations where you feel compelled to ask a question but don’t out of fear how you’ll be judged? Sometimes, the bravest and smartest thing you can do is to take the risk–and ask the question.
“It’s better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than open it and remove all doubt.”
― Mark Twain
 
This bon mot attributed to the author of Tom Sawyer is regarded as a sage piece of wisdom, but sometimes staying silent is the stupid thing to do.
 
That is, we are afraid of appearing stupid, so we don’t ask questions. When I was a journalist, I didn’t ask many questions in news conferences for precisely that reason. 
 
It’s not only a way that we play small, but it also leads to mistakes, miscommunication and breakdowns of all kinds. And the common thread is that people fear that by asking a question, they will be judged as stupid, or they don’t have right stuff between the ears.
 
In researching this blog, I saw that the internet is full of memes and graphics ridiculing people for asking ‘stupid quesitons’; as if it’s something that only lunkhead losers do. Some people won’t ask a question out of fear that they will appear to undermine or upset someone of higher status. There’s a famous example of Korean Flight 801 in 1997 in which a co-pilot was afraid to challenge a senior pilot about a concern, leading to a deadly crash.
 
Asking a question can be one of the most important things you ever do. But you must be being willing to risk. You must be willing to be vulnerable. Ironically, being vulnerable is powerful and takes courage, which runs completely counter to our societal training. It’s failing to ask a question out of fear that’s truly cowardly. 
 
As noted from my days as a journalist, I have often stayed silent rather than risk appearing stupid or somewhat less than by failing to ask a question. I believe it caused me to miss some important nuances for some stories, and cost me in other parts of my life.
 
But I’ve been working hard to remedy this behaviour. What led me to write about this was an event that happened this past weekend on a New Warrior Training Adventure (NWTA) run by the ManKind Project. These weekend events are run by volunteer staff and certified leaders. I am a senior staffer and leader in training.
 
On the weekends, we have a traditional ceremony on Sunday in which we say goodbye to the new men who have completed their weekend. At breakfast, I overheard the full leader of the NWTA suggest to another leader that he wanted to change the ceremony.
 
I offered to lead the new process. He explained it once again, but I didn’t fully get it. I was a little hesitant to ask him to repeat it, because it would be the third time he had spelled it out within a few minutes.
 
But I said, “Look, I don’t completely get this. Can you elaborate?”
 
The other leader at the table looked at me, nodded and said, “Great question. Way to go.” The full leader patiently laid out his vision.
 
This time, I was quite sure that I got all the details to make the process work. Then, I spoke to two other men to get their thoughts, and to help me stage it. I felt confident in executing the process. 
 
In the end, the process came off beautifully, just as the leader had envisioned it.
 
I believe it worked well because I asked a question and got support.
 
It wasn’t always my way, but I’m getting used to taking the risk of asking questions when I need clarity. Interestingly, rather than being told I’m stupid or feeling that way, the exact opposite happens.  Not always, but most of the time.

Asking questions removes uncertainty and allows me to move forward with a sense of calmness and integrity. If the other person judges me as lacking the right stuff, well, I can’t control that. But it’s what I need to do for me. 
 
Asking questions and seeking clarity are key ingredients to living and working within a robust culture of accountability. I wished I’d learned this lesson about 30 years earlier, but good lessons are rarely learned easily.
 

About Tim O'Connor

Tim O'Connor is a golf and life coach, an award-winning writer, Head Coach of the University of Guelph golf team and Mental Performance Coach at the ClubLink Academy at Glen Abbey. He is author of the newly released second edition of The Feeling of Greatness: The Moe Norman Story. He is co-host of the Swing Thoughts podcast with Howard Glassman, and a leader in training in the ManKind Project. He gets all excited when he helps people tap into their brilliance.

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