The Only Dumb Question is the One You Don’t Ask

Posted on April 3, 2024

Woman in a pink shaggy coat looking confused, with title 'The only dumb question is the one you didn't ask.'

Today’s Morning Buzz is brought to you by Chris Keefer, owner of K2 Communications of SC, LLC based in Blythewood, SC. Connect with Chris on LinkedIn and Facebook.

What I’m reading: The Stranger in the Lifeboat by Mitch Album

What I’m watching: The Good Wife, Season 7 on Paramount+ 

What I’m excited about: Getting outside more (once pollen season is over!)


When my husband and I were newlyweds, our next-door neighbors had a 4-year-old boy who would often wander over and watch us do yard work. The conversation would begin with, “Whatcha doin’?” then invariably lead into a series of “Why?” questions in rapid succession. Not having children yet ourselves, we did our best to patiently indulge and answer the kid. But I remember one time stepping away from my flower bed drenched in both sweat and exasperation and loudly answering, “I just don’t know why!” before his mom sheepishly walked over, took him by the hand, and walked him back home.

Obviously, my young neighbor was inquisitive. Maybe asking questions was his way of carrying on a conversation with an adult or learning more about the plants in my garden. Or maybe he was really questioning my decision to plant so much dill weed in our front yard. (What was I thinking?!?)

Regardless, these interactions remind me of the power of questions in cutting through the noise, the misinformation, and the unknown. As a communications and local government professional, I have come to rely on asking questions to:

  • Better know and understand a subject (person, place, thing, process, etc.)
  • Confirm something I may know or suspect
  • Build rapport with someone or help guide a conversation
  • Jumpstart creative thinking and exchange ideas
  • And more recently, facilitate better results from AI-powered tools.

So if questions are so valuable, why do I sometime hesitate to ask them?

  • Sometimes I’m uncomfortable with showing what I don’t know. I don’t want to look dumb by asking questions.
  • I don’t want to be overly pushy or inquisitive. People might think I have ulterior motives or I’m being nosy. (Where I’m from, we call that being “nebby.”)
  • I don’t want to waste people’s valuable time. People may be far too busy to answer my silly questions.
  • I don’t know the questions to ask or how to ask them, especially if I know nothing about the subject matter. 
  • I’m afraid of the answer.

Oddly, by asking questions over the many decades I’ve walked the Earth (and that’s a lot of questions, my friend!), I’ve learned there’s a right way and wrong way to ask questions (just as I’ve learned there’s a right way and wrong way to plant an herb garden). I’m thinking back to my undergraduate journalism textbook on interviewing, my previous work as a technical writer, and local government projects that involved designing and executing community surveys—all requiring me to ask questions. 

Given these experiences, I would say that the questions you ask and how you ask them depends on several factors:

  • The desired end result – What and how much do you want to know? If you have no knowledge or familiarity with the subject at hand, you will likely need to ask many questions, and perhaps many people. Conversely, if you just need a simple answer, sometimes asking a single yes/no question will do the trick.
  • The situation – What’s the temperature in the room? Is now the best time to ask questions? How quickly do you need a response? Is there sufficient time to ask the necessary questions?
  • The party answering the questions – Who are they? Are you asking the right people? Are they cooperative or suspicious? Are they willing to give you get honest, straightforward answers?

So if you’ve followed along with me so far, here are some proven tips for asking effective questions:

  1. Be clear and specific. When possible, keep questions short and to the point. If you’re not sure about how a question is worded, try it out on a few test subjects and see if you get the desired response.
  2. Provide context for the question. Provide some background information so that the respondent can provide an informed response. For example, if you wanted to find out how people would feel about paying an increased trash pickup fee, you might want to lead off the question explaining that the fee is intended to offset the cost of providing the trash pickup service and has remained unchanged for the last three years, although the costs of providing the service have increased by 10 percent.
  3. Try different variations on a question. For example, in making dinner plans, you could frame the question to solicit a yes/no response (Do you want pizza?), offer two or more choices (Do you want pizza or Chinese?), or leave it entirely up to the respondent (What do you want for dinner?).
  4. Use examples in your questions. For instance, “One way to balance a budget is to reduce expenses. What other ways could the city balance its budget?”
  5. If needed, probe a little deeper. For example, when someone says, “we tried that before, and it didn’t work,” my first inclination is to ask three questions: What did you try? Why didn’t it work? If we were to do it again, what should we do differently?
  6. Be careful in sequencing your questions. In some situations, it helps to start off with some simple questions intended to break the ice and build trust. Then, once both you and the respondent have built a comfortable rapport, you can slowly easy into more “meaty” or probing questions. 

I hope that by asking questions, you continue to discover, learn, and understand the community that you serve. As a town manager in a new town, I rely on questions every day to do my job. (It’s my right to do so as a card-carrying member of the “new girl” club.) So as I head into a new work day, I thank my now 44-year-old former next-door neighbor for the memories — and for inspiring this article!

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