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.

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