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The Intelligent Way to Ask Stupid Questions

When the SEC released thousand of pages of evidence from its investigation into epic fraudster Bernie Madoff, The NY Times sifted through the documents and drew several conclusions, including: "the paperwork... also tells a tale of unseasoned people uncertain about what to do and unwilling to ask for help." The finding is an important reminder for the relatively young and inexperienced among us. Ignorance is embarrassing and, frankly, not likely to endear you to your organization, but not asking for help when you need it is worse.

So how can a smart, young but clueless employee use asking for help as an opportunity to impress? None other than Harvard Business School comes to the rescue with a post by communications consultant Jodi Glickman Brown on its Conversation Starter blog. She offers three concrete steps to help you overcome your jitters, get the information you need and win points for your smart approach to your own lack of knowledge:

  • Start your question with what you know. Do your homework first. Get enough background information to put your issue or problem in context. Give the other person an idea of what you've completed to date or what you know already and then proceed to explain what's outstanding, where or how you're struggling, or what you need help with.
  • Then, state the direction you want to take and ask for feedback, thoughts or clarification. Form an opinion on what you think the answer should be. Don't just ask, "How should I reach out to the brokers?" Instead propose a course of action and get your boss's feedback: "I'm thinking of sending out a mass email to the brokers but I'm not sure if that's the most effective format...what do you think of that approach?"
  • If you don't know the direction to take, ask for tangible guidance. Instead of asking "What should I do?" ask specifically for the tools you'll need to make that decision yourself, such as a recent example of a similar analysis or a template for a given task. Or, ask for a referral to someone who has worked on a similar initiative or project in the past.
For more on the art of sounding smart by asking the dumb questions, check out this post which considers: is dumb the new smart?
(Image of Bart Simpson at the blackboard by Andreia, CC 2.0)