Why are we so afraid to ask questions?

catThere are many ways for us to learn new stuff: we can go to school for it; we can research it; we can observe someone doing it; we can listen to someone speak about it; we can attend a training workshop in real life or online, and, we can ask questions.

My whole life, I’ve been told I ask too many questions.

Exactly how many is too many anyway?

Thinking about this – that I’ve been told my entire life that I ask too many questions – led me to consider what the downside is for anyone who asks a lot of questions. Generally, we ask questions about things we don’t know or because we are searching for information or clarification – so what exactly is wrong with that?
What’s wrong is that we don’t like asking questions because we fear we may appear stupid.

This is flawed thinking #1. On occasion, haven’t most of us been on the receiving end of a derisory glance when we’ve asked a question and the other person has answered with ‘Obviously…’ or ‘You should know that’ or ‘I’ve already told you’. The frustrating thing is that if I am asking, it’s not obvious, at least not to me! If I thought I knew the answer, I wouldn’t ask. And just because I’ve been told something before doesn’t mean I remember it now. And what if the way you told me in the first place only caused more confusion?
The result of being on the receiving end of this type of response? Humiliation. And, because that feeling burns and stays with you, you’re less likely to ask questions in future.

So why do so many people respond in this way? Partially, it’s because when we communicate, we know with 100% certainty what we mean and we assume the other person understands it just as perfectly. There’s a tendency feel irritated at the other person for not knowing the answer and to shut down the conversation rather than opening it up. Flawed thinking #2.

This double-whammy of flawed thinking starts in childhood. Children are innately inquisitive; they possess open and questioning minds. Some parents get weary of answering questions and say “because I said so” or “stop asking so many questions”. Those children grow up, lose their curiosity and embark on careers where they study and learn and often accept what is presented as truth instead of questioning. They also say things like “I told you before” and feel irritated when they are asked a question. And so it continues.

You know you work in an organization that doesn’t foster openness or invite questions when you hear people say those dreaded words: “We’ve always done it this way”. If you were to ask them “Why?” chances are they wouldn’t even know and probably have never pondered it before either. And once that type of thinking is embedded in an organization it can be tough to get it out.

It turns out that not asking the question has the biggest downside.

Not asking the question can lead to errors, mistakes, conflicts, assumptions and all manner of ill-feeling that can be costly in time and money for organizations. Not asking questions can ruin team work, individual relationships, projects, deadlines and result in an unmotivated and uninspired workplace. Without fostering a culture that is open to curiosity, no company can innovate successfully.

To develop a questioning culture we need to be open and listen for when people say: “This might be a stupid question but…” and acknowledge there is no such thing as a stupid question. There’s only the stupidity of NOT asking the question.

Curiosity might have killed the cat but asking the question and learning something new might just lead to something fantastic. So go ahead and rekindle your curiosity. And if someone asks you a question, check your inside voice for any of those unhelpful comments, and ask yourself instead why you respond that way and how you could reply more positively to give the person what they need?

8 question marks were used in this post. None were harmed.

What do Komodo dragons have to do with expectation and assumption?

I had a conversation that made me think about how often (at home and in the office) we have expectations of other people that when not met, cause us to become upset and make assumptions about their thoughts; motives, and behaviour.

My partner and I had been together less than a year. We were still figuring each other out. One evening we were watching a fascinating documentary on the Komodo dragon and how it bites its prey – in this case, a wildebeest – injecting a slow-acting poison, and follows it around for days until the wildebeest is too weak to do anything but lie down exhausted. And then the dragon begins its feast. Grizzly stuff!

In an unusually sappy moment for me, I turned to my partner and asked: ‘If we were wildebeest and I got bitten by a Komodo dragon, would you save me?’ I was expecting him to pick me up, cuddle me and say ‘of course I would; I’d lay down my life for you’. Instead he said, ‘No way! I’d be out of there as fast as I could run!’

Slightly stunned at the response, I asked him why. The answer was that he was imagining he really was a wildebeest and that’s how a wildebeest would respond. I had been using it as a metaphor to test his strength of human feeling.

That was the conversation.

Our expectations and assumptions can ruin the best of intentions and scupper potentially rich relationships because, most of the time, they are hidden. We’re not aware of them ourselves so what chance does the other person have?

Examples are all around us, every day. Recently I was having some work done on the front of the house. As I work from home, I was absorbed in what I was doing but I took the time to greet Sam, the young workman, when he first arrived at 9.00am. He was an employee of a local firm I trusted and used often. Two hours later, I had to go out. I bid adieu to Sam and went about my business. When I returned several hours later, the work had been done and Sam was gone.

Later that evening, I got a text from Bill, Sam’s boss, ‘It was really cold today, Sam was at your house for six hours working and you never even offered him a cup of coffee’. A bit puzzled I replied: ‘I left the house after a couple of hours and had no idea Sam would be there that long’. Bill’s response: ‘You could have made him coffee when he arrived’. OK, time to pick up the phone and talk – not text.

Seems that my expectations and theirs were different. I expect people to ask for something if they want it and given, as I recall, Sam actually arrived with a Timmie’s cup in hand, it didn’t cross my mind to offer him a cup of coffee. I also didn’t know it was going to take him six hours. I expected the job to take about two hours as that’s what was quoted by Bill. I said to Bill, ‘Sam could have knocked on the door and asked for a coffee if he wanted one’.

So we had opposing expectations at play: mine – if you want something, you ask for it, and theirs – if you’re working at someone else’s home, you wait to be offered hospitality.

If I hadn’t have cleared this up with Bill, both he and Sam probably would have made assumptions about me – perhaps that I was mean and uncaring. If we had just left it at the text and hadn’t had the conversation in person, I may have assumed that Sam was ‘soft’ for not openly stating his needs and Bill was passive aggressive because he didn’t want to talk to me in person.

I am neither mean nor uncaring and Sam is not soft; Bill is not usually passive aggressive. We simply had different expectations.

Another more unfortunate example comes from a Canadian colleague of mine; a trainer, who had been booked to deliver some workshops in the US. The company who booked him had an expectation that he had his US work visa, and assumed he did because they did not ask. He expected that he wouldn’t be questioned at the border; he further expected that if there were any questions the company who contracted him would step up. He also assumed it would be OK – but carrying workbooks, a projector, a laptop and other accoutrement of a trainer made it obvious he was travelling for work; he was turned away and the company did not step in to help.

The result? The company who booked him had paid thousands of dollars gathering its top leaders from all over the US to attend this two-day workshop now had a room full of highly-paid executives twiddling their thumbs. And the trainer – he got banned permanently from the US.

The simple fix to this of course is to clarify your expectations and assumptions. For me, if I’d told my partner the Komodo was a metaphor he would have answered entirely differently and it would have saved us an ‘interesting’ conversation.

But then again, I would have lost a powerful illustration for clarifying expectations and questioning assumptions.

There’s always one wasp at the tea party

Manchester, England, the early 1980’s. And my crusty old boss, Barry*. He was cantankerous and grouchy and barked at people – on a good day!

When someone he didn’t like was walking by, he’d mutter at me under his breath,

Wasp Tea Party“There’s always one wasp at the tea party”.

It was a regular occurrence. Barry didn’t seem to like people much; he thought of most people as irritants and therefore, “wasps at the tea party”. A different moment, a different wasp.

I witnessed how my colleagues in the office changed their behaviour around Barry. They’d be guarded about everything they did and said when he was in close proximity. And their behaviour seemed to fuel Barry’s perspective – confirmation bias – so his disdain towards my colleagues grew inch by inch until no one was safe from his wasp comments. Not even me.

To clients, he was all charm and helpfulness. But I noted that, like his co-workers, clients didn’t particularly warm to Barry either – despite his best efforts.

Barry and his mantra stayed with me. When I started delivering workshops on behavioural skill sets (conflict management, managing emotions, managing and supervising people) in 2008, I’d often start with the question: “Do you like everyone you work with?”

Allowing a few seconds for the question to sink in and for people to decide if the environment was safe enough for them to let their inside voices out, I encouraged people to be honest. And they were – as soon as one person admitted that, no, they didn’t like everyone they worked with, the rest of the group felt free to admit that they weren’t too keen on all of their colleagues either.

We’d agree it was normal. I’d then ask: “Does this person you don’t like, your wasp at the tea party, know you don’t like them?”

This question would be met with more silence and contemplation. Most people don’t consider the question – they don’t look at it from the outside in. It takes most people a few seconds to process this information and replay their interactions with their wasp. Some said ‘yes, they know!’

The context for the workshop could then be set: whether you’re dealing with a conflict, managing people, coping with a set of pressurised circumstances, how you respond to people, like them or not, says volumes about you as a professional.

I would share my Dad’s mantra: “No one is more important than anyone else”. I learned this from him when I worked at as a coat picker at the factory where he was an executive fashion designer.

My Dad was as respectful to us on the factory floor as he was to his colleagues and superiors in the boardroom. My colleagues respected my Dad for that.

And I couldn’t help but wonder… “does my Dad like everyone he works with?”

When I asked him he threw his head back and laughed. No – he didn’t like all his co-workers – “but should they know that?” he asked me.

The discussion we had about it has stayed with me since and it resulted in the development of one of my pillar beliefs – to be the consummate professional, we must treat everyone with respect, whether we like them or not. If it’s obvious to people you don’t like them, they will always hold something back; they won’t be able to bring their best to the party. You won’t create trust, and trust is the foundation of every relationship.

And as much as you may have one or two wasps at your tea party, as have I, have you thought that perhaps, you may be the wasp at someone else’s tea party?

*Not his real name