Asking Stupid Questions

After graduating from Medical School, I started working at a startup as a software engineer. While I did learn a lot of things in this time, one thing which sticks out particularly is asking stupid questions.

You may have noticed that businesspeople have the striking ability to talk about things very persuasively and in a superficially logical way which sounds totally understandable while you’re listening. However, just moments later, you try to re-phrase what was just said in your mind (and thereby attempt to understand it), but you fail at doing so.

“Wait, what? Yeah, that’s probably just my stupidity. I might have missed something. Everyone else seems to understand it. Yeah, I’ll probably pretend to have understood it and rely on the others to explain it later.”

Personally, I wasn’t aware of this for quite some time. In University lectures, this was my typical thought process. I always assumed my preparation was not good enough (and truth be told, it often was non-existent). But even if it had been good, I wouldn’t have had the guts to be the guy who asks a stupid question in an auditorium with 400 people.

Consultants

Fast forward to working as a software engineer. Being a doctor, I started becoming involved in some project management as we were developing medical software.

I started becoming aware of asking stupid questions when we had our first consultants come in.

Consultants charge interesting fees by the hour. Sitting in meetings with them, I would think to myself “If I haven’t understood everything these people are talking about by the time they leave, this is a huge waste of money”. And often, I noticed that I wasn’t understanding much of what they said.

Cautiously (and slightly nervously), I started asking questions:

  • “I didn’t quite understand that, sorry, this may be my stupidity. Could you explain that again, please?”

  • “Okay, I got that first part but somehow I’m missing something regarding the rest. Could you explain that again, please?”

This yielded three unexpected surprises which I only became aware of as they would happen regularly over the course of the next few weeks:

  • At the moment of my question, nobody else in the room had understood what the person was talking about.

  • All other attending people were immensely grateful that I was taking the burden of asking the “stupid” questions.

  • The people answering the questions were very kind (yeah right, they also earn lots of money for answering my stupid questions).

Keeping that in mind, I got more courageous:

  • “Sorry, I may be missing some of the required background here. Could you explain this in more simple terms so that even I can understand it?”

  • “Okay, so I think I didn’t quite grasp that concept yet. Could you give me an example based on what you just described?”

To my repeated surprise, I never encountered any negative reaction to my questions.

A Theory of Question Askworthiness Thresholds

Here’s my theory: In school and University (and um, in life), people have vastly different thresholds as to what qualifies as a valid question. A valid question in this sense is non-stupid, non-embarassing and legitimately askworthy. Let’s call it the Question Askworthiness Threshold (QAT).

Historically, my QAT was immensely high. A question would pop into my head, but was it askworthy? I would ponder. Is this a stupid question? Will it embarass me in front of the others? Will the teacher / lecturerer / CEO get angry? Will s/he actually start doubting my competence and preparation? Never mind, maybe I can answer it by myself if I read up on it. Maybe I’m just not well prepared enough.

The outcome would always be the same: I would ask very few questions and those which I asked were very good ones. And I never ended up reading up on those which I didn’t have the courage to ask.

But there very often would be a person in the group who would constantly ask insanely stupid questions - questions which everyone else could easily answer by simply remembering what had been said a few seconds ago. People would get annoyed. Asking stupid questions seems to make you look like an annoying and stupid person.

This conclusion is however only partially true. The person in class asking all the stupid questions has a very low QAT - every question which pops into their mind is askworthy without any further consideration. On the other side, all the other people in the class have an immensely high QAT - they are all scared of being like the annoying person and therefore very wary of asking any questions at all.

What we do not have is people covering the middle ground. People who ask questions which cover the basics without having obvious answers. Or covering obvious answers but making sure that all assumptions are true.

Medical School

Having studied medicine and now reflecting on my experience as a student and intern in hospitals, asking these questions in this field is very difficult.

When doing a ward round with the attending doctor, asking a question along the lines of:

  • “I have absolutely no clue regarding this patient’s disease and treatment, what is it and what should I do?”

Would yield a high probability of being shouted at while casting doubts on your experience, education and life.

Likewise as a doctor. As a doctor you learn to professionally circumnavigate all situations in which you could come off as not perfectly knowledgable. Note how doctors do a good job at explaining stuff and it sounds totally reasonable and then you arrive at home and start asking yourself “So how does disease x actually work? What does this medication precisely do?” (answer: nobody knows, it’s medicine!).

Likewise as a student. While doing bed-side teaching, doctors like to ask the students some questions which must be answered correctly, else there’s embarassment because the students didn’t prepare well enough.

How paradoxical! The whole point of doing human teaching in a university is to ask for what students dont know so you can teach them!

6 Months in

Nowadays, I’m much more confident in asking “stupid” questions. Further, I have condensed them to the bare minimum:

  • “I don’t get it. Please explain.”

  • “Why?”

  • “How?”

So far, the only thing which can actually go wrong is that the person becomes offended because s/he feels you are questioning their competence. However, this is absolutely besides the point and by no means to be taken as a personal offense!

Having a mutual, perfect understanding of the topic at hand is the prerequisite for having the most effective discussion and finding the best answers.

What now?

We seem to be living in a society which conditions us not to ask the stupid questions which are often the most important. As with all habits, changing this is hard.

On the individual level, you have to change your own thoughts and actions - lower your QAT. Further, you have to change your emotional reaction towards people who ask you “stupid” questions. It’s no personal offense!

On the group level, we have to be receptive towards people questioning seemingly basic things. Asking stupid questions must be encouraged.