Asking a stupid question


I recently did a clinical shift,  had a great group of patients, worked with a collaborative and friendly colleague, and we helped each other throughout the whole day - in short a pretty good day. I faced several moments of uncertainty but one stands out because I had to ask a really stupid question.

When I stated my question the two people I asked did that 'look' - the suspended disbelief that I had asked kind of look. The look that says - 'I can't believe she doesn't know that!' I didn't really care, I carried on and by my asking that question I confirmed my suspicion and with the doubt all gone, I made a good catch - preventing possible harm reaching a patient.

My story has a happy ending but I started thinking about the look I might give or comment I might make when someone asks me a 'stupid' question.

We've all heard the phrase - the only stupid question is the one you didn't ask - how good are we at asking questions? Do we role model this for our teams and do we encourage and support it when someone is brave enough to ask?

How do feel about looking like the dumbest person in the room, because that might be exactly what is needed - dumb is the new smart maybe? This article from Business Insider agrees that asking dumb questions might be the smartest thing you can do - and it gives a list of questions you can start with in any situation. It also presents the win-win idea that a simple question can help both a team and the leader/presenter - I'm always looking for win-wins.

'What is your statement to question ratio and can you double it?'
Jim Collins

Why aren't we asking questions is explored in this blog postand again in this post both from the perspective of education.

Questions take up time and aren't we all busy?
I have to be seen to be coping so I can't ask a question - people might realise I'm not coping.
Am I not the one in charge - I should know it all?

Can we please chuck these all out right now and admit we are in this together for a common cause and that together we will have the answers. My patient stayed safe because I asked the question. It took a bit of time and yep everyone presumed I would have that knowledge - I didn't and I chose vulnerability so that the common cause came out on top - safe patient care.

So, we need to be asking more questions - but how and where do you start? This short blog post summarizes some advice on how to ask questions so they might not sound that stupid.

There are different types of questions and knowing what to ask when can be helpful - this video from Harvard Business Review sums up different types of questions in a couple of minutes. In this article the art of asking questions from a perspective of managing people is explored further.

James E Ryan explains the 5 specific questions that as leaders we should be asking:

  • Wait, what?
  • I wonder if....
  • Couldn't we at least...
  • How can I help?
  • What truly matters?

Click this link for a summary of these 5 essential questions (plus a bonus) and for more information about his book.

'Be curious, not judgemental'
Walt Whitman

Go be curious, ask questions, listen and learn