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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Changing Jobs

How to Ask Stupid Questions (Without Sounding Stupid)

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Ten months.

That’s how long I evaded making coffee at my first corporate job. Until that point, I’d been riding on the coffee-making coattails of my co-workers, making sure I was never the one who emptied the last few drops from the industrial-sized carafe.

Then, one day, the spout sputtered into my empty mug, and I had to suck it up and ask an embarrassingly easy question: “So, how do you brew a new pot of coffee?”

And no matter your level of experience, you’re bound to encounter a similar situation at some point. Whether you never learned how to use a mainstream program, you don’t quite understand something your co-workers can do effortlessly, or you’ve just entered a completely unfamiliar industry, you’ll have to ask some “stupid” questions, too.

But while everyone will tell you “there’s no such thing as a stupid question,” you still want to phrase your inquiries in a way that helps you come across as capable and confident. So if you’ve been holding back on your questions, read on for four ways to ask them in a smart, strategic way.

Observe First

Sometimes, you can find out the answer to your question without asking verbally—but simply by observing.

Take, for example, my coffee-making conundrum: If I’d lingered by the coffee station long enough, I could have covertly watched a co-worker make a new pot of coffee—and then reproduced the steps myself.

OK, so maybe your questions aren’t quite as simple—but in the same vein, you might be able to find out what you need to know by digging a little. Not sure what your manager means when she asks you to create a dashboard in SalesForce? Google it. Even if you don’t find the step-by-step instructions, you’ll at least gain the basic knowledge that you’ll be building a reporting tool—and that will give you a good start for asking your co-workers for more specifics.

Start With What You Already Know

Assuming you do some prior research or clarify at least part the answer on your own, you should now have a vague idea of the specific information you’re looking for. Maybe you’re not sure how an entire website is coded, but you at least know that your company uses PHP—so use that to frame your question. Instead of asking a programmer “Uh, what’s all this gibberish?” you can ask “I’m vaguely familiar with PHP, but could you explain the elements of the new site feature in layman’s terms?”

Even if you take a guess that doesn’t turn out to be entirely correct (“So, SalesForce is a reporting tool?”), you’ll still sound more prepared than if you stared with a blank stare and a helpless “What’s SalesForce?”

When you lay the groundwork with even a little prior knowledge, you’ll make it easier for your target to explain to you exactly what you need to know—while avoiding the extraneous (obvious) details that aren’t truly necessary.

Make a Solid Suggestion

Sometimes, questions can sound “stupid” simply because they’re far too broad—e.g., “What’s this?” or “What should I do?”—which can make it seem like you didn’t give it a second thought before you asked. So even if you know absolutely nothing about how to get started on a project your manager just assigned your first question shouldn’t ever be: “How should I start?”

Instead, approach your question with a suggestion or idea you’ve already developed: “I thought I could start by pulling traffic data from a year ago and then comparing it to recent numbers. Do you agree, or is there a better starting place?” Or, ask for something specific that will help you get to the bigger goal: “I need to contact all of our new clients from the past month—do we have a client directory that I can access?”

Even if your idea is completely off the mark, you’ll show that you actually put some thought into your question, and you’ll provide your co-worker or manager with a solid jumping-off point to provide you with a little more guidance.

Ask With Confidence

Most importantly, the key to asking stupid questions is to avoid acknowledging that you think they’re stupid. When you phrase your question with the assumption that you should already know the answer (e.g., “I know this is such a stupid question, but how do I upload a post to WordPress?”), you sound a lot less knowledgeable that if you would have just asked the question in a more straightforward manner (“Can you walk me through uploading a blog post?”).

The truth is, most colleagues (the nice ones, at least) won’t hesitate to help when you ask a simple question—even if it seems embarrassingly obvious to you. (Unless, of course, you keep asking the same question over and over—or it’s something that you could have easily found out with some quick research.)

No matter how high you climb the ladder, you’ll never know everything. Thankfully, asking “stupid” questions won’t cause the demise of your career. In fact, when you phrase them the right way, you’ll demonstrate that you’re competent and—more importantly—not afraid to ask for whatever you need to get the job done.