The value of stupid questions

First things first, there is such a thing as a stupid question.

Usually, we say stupid when we want to insult someone. But stupid just means that someone, or some thing, lacks intelligence. Okay, that’s pretty insulting on the face of it, but hang with me for a second.

If there are stupid questions, then there are smart questions. But what’s a smart question? It’s a query that is intelligent. In other words, the question comes from a place of prior understanding. Smart questions both supply and demand information. They can be incredibly valuable when you’re trying to drive toward a deeper understanding of the topic, focus your subject on a particular point, or explore nuance in greater detail.

But what if you’re just starting your inquiry? Or what if you’ve been at it for a while, but you want your subject to think about the question from a fresh angle? That’s when a stupid question is your best friend, because a stupid question seeks understanding and nothing else. It isn’t there to make you look smart; it’s a single-purpose tool.

How come…?

What do you mean?

I don’t understand, can explain it another way?

A stupid question comes into the world without prior knowledge. And because the question comes out stupid, you often get an honest answer.

Don’t believe me?

Watch a White House press conference. That room is a contest to see who can ask the smartest questions. (Hint: you can spot a smart question by the number of sentences that precede the actual question).

Now tell me this: how would you rate the answers at a White House press conference?

If you really want to understand something, a stupid question is a smart move.


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