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There’s No Such Thing as a Stupid Question

As a straddle the worlds of teaching students, working with CEOs and their teams, and studying the psychology of aging, I am amazed at how more-or-less the same issues appear in all of them. The power of questions is one example.

Discovery requires being curious and asking questions.  We begin our lives as children unfettered when it comes to asking questions: Why is the sky blue?  etc. As we get older, schools and other socializing institutions ty to reduce the number of questions we ask. One seventh grade teacher had students put on their desk a note saying “Is this a stupid question?” as a way of limiting questions in class (He was a science teacher!)  As I teach university students in the US and China, I increasingly see a few students who ask almost all the questions and the rest shying away from doing so.

In companies, I experience newer (and younger) workers often refraining from asking questions. Asked why, some respond that they don’t want to “look stupid”, even though they concede that without the critical information they may make a (stupid) mistake. As I work with people 60+ through Age Brilliantly, including the “elderly” (over 85) the pattern of not raising questions continues for many.

Yet, in all cases, asking appropriate questions can save people time and energy, and have positive effects. Indeed, Meika Loe, who researched the “oldest old” (over 85) in Aging Our Way, notes a key lesson she learned: asking for help enables autonomy and control – as long as it’s on the (asker’s) terms.”

We need to change the culture our hour homes, schools, workplaces, etc. to encourage people to ask appropriate questions more often because they empower people to make better decisions, do better work, and feel more confident about themselves.  In my office we have a note saying “there is no such thing as a stupid question!”  We celebrate breakthroughs that come from a good question asked to encourage more of them. But it’s not enough.

What are you doing to create cultures to encourage people to ask more and better questions?  Share your experiences and ideas.

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