Illustration by Jacob Zinman-Jeanes

Five steps to asking stupid questions

Have you ever been pulled into a meeting and found yourself lacking a basic understanding of the surrounding conversation or debate?

My assumption is going to be yes. It happens a lot.

What do you do in this situation? Do you feel reserved? Shy? It’s common to avoid being the person to break the conversation and ask broad and basic questions. Doing so might make us seem dumb, underprepared or lazy.

But you shouldn’t feel that way. It happens to more people than you’d think, even the best prepared. I’ve walked out of many meetings with unanswered questions. And regretted it every time.

If you don’t do it, no one will

Broad, obvious and seemingly stupid questions are the most important questions to ask. They help us take a step back, observe and understand the bigger picture. They allow us to gain a more holistic understanding of the root cause of a problem and the impact it generates. Without a broad perspective a project quickly loses focus.

Why do we fail to ask the big questions?

Well, it’s important to remember that many people operate deep in detail, day in and day out. They operate in a space where choices and decisions need to be made. For people like this it can be more difficult to zoom out of the detail and address the broad, obvious questions.

If you find yourself lost up meeting creek without a paddle, it’s important to know you’re allowed to ask the obvious questions, as long as you do it with tact.

How to ask the obvious questions

1. Leave your ego at the door

The best fall back is to accept your question might be received as silly. Forget your ego, let go of personal judgement and move on. Be confident in your decision to ask that question. It will be worth it.

As a receiver of the question, put yourself in their shoes. Avoid using a tone that is judgemental and critical.

2. Toggle between zooming in and zooming out

Identify the current focus of the team then suggest the group zoom out to understand the bigger picture. Depending on the nature of the meeting or workshop, there will be a threshold of how far participants are willing to zoom in or out. Always keep in mind the purpose of the forum and tailor your approach accordingly.

3. Position yourself as an outsider

Help others around you understand your perspective and recognise the value it can contribute to the conversation. Remember, it’s not about converting them to become big picture thinkers, but more about giving them a space where they can feel comfortable to take a step back, zoom out and observe. Once one person does it, it gives permission for others to join in.

4. Do your homework

Set aside time to do research beforehand. Read up on the latest trends and news of the industry. Look up who will be attending the session, including current position and background. Chat to someone more familiar with the project.

On the flip side, if you are organising a meeting and pulling in someone new, make sure you take the time to bring them up to speed on what they need to know.

5. Think like a beginner

I do this a lot. Approach the situation as if you are a beginner. Use it as a means to reframe and reposition the challenge for yourself, your design team and the stakeholders in the room. It allows you to approach the challenge from a point of curiosity and switch off from autopilot.

“Acting like a beginner means not throwing your experiences away and being naive, but rather looking at them as tools you can use when it’s to your advantage.” — Jory McKay

Everyone loves a stupid person

Whatever happened to ‘there’s no such thing as a stupid question’? Let’s bring it back folks. Stand proud and be the big picture thinker that everyone in the room will (silently) appraise.

Everyone will be thankful in the long run. Trust me.

Written by Angela Bode, Service Design Lead at Thick.

Read more essays from the Thick team.

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