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Asking Stupid Questions

Several weeks ago I read a human interest story in one of our Canadian Newspapers. It concerned a woman who had purchased a computer and for the last 2 years, had been unable to get it to work. It was discovered she had never plugged it in!


If you’re anything like myself, your first inclination might be to mutter something about dumb users.


Once you got that off your chest, you then became a much more reasonable person and a better model of a modern computer professional and allowed her the benefit of the doubt. After all, we know the terms ‘intuitive’ and ‘user friendly’ are more products of Madison Avenue, than design concepts in Silicon Valley.


Did you take your thoughts one step further? Did you think of the dozens of ‘computer’ folks she must have spoken to, in her two years of ever mounting frustration and technological disillusionment?


Each one of these folks, must have looked at the machine or spoken with her and asked her to describe the problem. We can assume not a single one asked her the one question that would have solved her ‘problem.’ “Ahem... I don’t mean to be rude, but have you plugged it in?”


They didn’t ask that question for one of three reasons, none of which are acceptable.


Assuming the people she asked knew something about computers, then the most damning reason, is that they just did not think of asking. There’s no cure for this behaviour. There’s just the certainty that the consequences of ‘not thinking’ will hardly ever generate desirable results.


The next most common reason, is the assumption that the computer was already plugged in. Contrary to popular belief, assumptions are actually good for you! They allow you to act before all the facts are in, which in the world I live in, is most of the time. The trick to arriving at  the right conclusions is a disciplined regime of assumption management!


Are you aware of the assumptions you’re making? Are you conscious of the thought... ‘I’m assuming the computer is plugged in.’? If you are, then, when things don’t work out as expected, you can return to your assumptions and re-examine them, changing each in turn, until you reach the correct conclusion.


Where we trip up, sometimes with dire consequences, is when we make assumptions, but are ignorant of them. We assume the computer’s plugged in, but do so without ‘thinking,’ without being aware of the thought. Then, when what we ‘know,’ fails to produce the correct answer, we’re stumped.


The last reason why this woman’s PC did not work for 2 years is that people didn’t ask the question they thought of, the one sounding like a stupid question, the one that could be mistaken as questioning her fundamental intelligence. “Have you plugged it in?”


This business of not asking the simple questions, is not uncommon. It bears more than a passing resemblance to another strange behaviour pattern. The habit of not telling people they have something peculiar stuck in their teeth, or hanging on their sleeve, or a strange odor arises every time they enter the room.


Rather than help solve a problem, we avoid asking the ‘difficult’ questions or communicating ‘difficult’ information. ‘Did you plug it in?’, ‘You have something in your teeth,’ ‘Your hair is on fire.’


The fear, I guess, is that we might embarrass them in some manner. I’d rather be embarrassed than own a useless computer for 2 years! There are ways to communicate difficult information. Be open about the difficulty, admit upfront the statement you’re about to make might cause problems. “Ahem... I don’t mean to be rude, but have you plugged it in?” or “I know this is embarrassing, but one of those frog legs is still stuck in your teeth.”

Peter de Jager is a speaker, writer & consultant. Contact him via [email protected]

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