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Just ask

I can admit that I’m embarrassed when I ask a dumb question. Aren’t you?

Sometimes I have to ask a dumb question. I just have to! And, surprisingly, I’ve learned that I get great answers when I do. These questions are more than an awkward necessity. They are also helpful tools you can use to unstick confusing conversations.

Maybe “dumb” questions aren’t so dumb after all?

3 reasons to ask

  • Ask, don’t assume: e.g., to avoid confusion right now
  • Ask differently: e.g., to make room for new info
  • Ask again: e.g., to avoid confusion later on

Ask in 4 steps

  1. Be gentle
  2. Ask
  3. Spend most of your energy listening
  4. Make space, and wait for an answer

Asking questions cross-culturally

Using questions intentionally can also be helpful in cross-cultural situations, I think.

“Everything you’re sure is right can be wrong in another place,” observes a character in Barbara Kingsolver’s novel “The Poisonwood Bible.”

When you’re in “another place,” the signal:noise ratio falls through the floor. You’re overwhelmed. You’re under pressure. Just when you need to think critically about your own assumptions – you can’t. Heuristics keep tripping you up. Questions can help you navigate foreign terrain. Use them strategically, and don’t worry about looking silly because you already stick out.

Of course, when you’re working across cultures or languages it’s just as important to think about how you ask questions. One of my favorite books on this is Erin Meyer’s “The Culture Map.”

It took me a lot of awkward conversations after moving back to the US to adjust to my fellow Americans’ way of talking. We are straight-laced and straightfoward, and we really do value blunt talk. Is this because people read your willingness to be direct as “confident,” as “honest”? You tell me.

You can ask me a question any time. [email protected]