"There are no stupid questions," says Steve Wolff, CEO of AMS, a consulting company for the performing arts. In fact, questions that begin, "This may be a stupid question, but …" are devilishly effective. They can not only prevent misunderstandings, but also keep expectations in check.
As a consultant, Steve is paid to ask questions. He's found that asking "stupid" questions gets people to open up, whereas pointed questions can put people on the defensive (at least initially). When Steve spoke with the board of a new art theater, he asked, "This may be a stupid question, but why are you building this theater?"
The chair of the committee responded, "Not at all. Great question." Often, when in the midst of a huge project, people get so focused on how it will be accomplished, they often neglect the why. This might explain why the members of the committee proceeded to have a long, productive conversation about their vision for the theater. Steve learned that some committee members believed that this community theater was going to be the next Kennedy Center. Steve asked more "stupid" questions that guided them to more realistic expectations. After all, the Kennedy Center was built in the ‘60's and has spent decades building a loyal following.
Columbo, the TV detective, mastered the art of looking confused when interrogating a suspect. Columbo's suspects were, of course, actors working from a script. So beware. If you dumb it down too much, your employees or clients won't confide in you. They might even wonder how you got your leadership position. But, if your questions are open-ended and your questions become less "stupid" as they expose misunderstanding or unrealistic expectations, your results will rival Columbo's.
I know a CEO of a national retailer who is another "stupid" question proselytizer. At the second meeting of a bank board, his head was awash with acronyms. He asked, "This might be a stupid question, but do you have a sheet that defines all these acronyms?" The board member next to him said, "That's a great idea. I still don't know what half of them mean." He'd been on the board for eleven years!
Don't let shame or embarrassment prevent you from admitting what you don't know. Consider it an opportunity to revisit protocols or decisions. What "stupid questions" have you been holding back?