By Piero Procaccini – Lead Facilitator
A topic that frequently arises, during discussions on good communication, is the question of questions – How do we ask good ones? When do we ask them? When do we encourage them?
In improv, we generally try to avoid asking questions because they demand information from our scene partner rather than providing that information, ourselves. Onstage, however, we are afforded a tremendous advantage that disappears once we go back to real life: when we are improvising, we get to inhabit realities where everything we say is right. Offstage we are not afforded this luxury so questions become an essential part of improved communication and better understanding – and many of the same fundamental principles of improvisation still apply to questions: active listening, Yes And, letting go of preconceptions, etc.
And why are dumb questions so important? Because they are an enormous gateway towards building trust and understanding.
From the improv perspective, it’s important to ask questions that build on what you have heard and to encourage questions from your listener, regardless of their quality. People can be uncomfortable with this double standard. Sometimes, during a facilitated conversation on building relationships, a workshop participant will say, “Sure, sure, there is no such thing as a dumb question, but what if someone asks a really dumb question?” Our response is, “That’s terrific!” You may be wondering, “Why are dumb questions terrific?” I’m so glad you asked.
Here is a secret that may shock you: people tend to dislike appearing uninformed or incompetent. It is for this reason that we tend to default to sitting on our questions instead of asking them. When I ask a question, it is not only vulnerable because I may not know the answer; but I also run the risk that the question, itself, may reveal a greater lack of understanding.” For example, if I ask you, “What state is Ontario in?” I have demonstrated that I don’t know A.) that Ontario is outside the United States and B.) that it is, itself, a Canadian province – much like a state in many respects (also C.) that you are not supposed to end a sentence with a preposition – but I digress…).
The good news about a dumb question is that it can offer a ton of insight into a greater breakdown in communication – maybe that person is lacking some context, or forgetting a critical point, or possibly your explanation was misunderstood.
The good news is that every time someone is willing to be vulnerable with you, it offers an opportunity for you to gain their trust which, in turn, builds that relationship. When someone asks any question at all – especially a “dumb” one – they are taking an enormous risk. How you respond will decide whether they begin to trust you more or whether they start trusting you less.
Encouraging a question-friendly environment is not just a matter of giving people verbal permission to ask questions. Having an open-door policy is a great start but not enough. It is vital to be willing to both ask vulnerable questions, yourself (especially if you are in a leadership role), and also to respond to any and all questions with respect – especially the more vulnerable “dumb” ones. At this point, you may be either worried that you have to pretend like a dumb question is a smart question or, at the very least, you may be wondering how to respond to a dumb question authenticity without isolating the person who asked it.
When someone asks any question at all – especially a “dumb” one – they are taking an enormous risk. How you respond will decide whether they begin to trust you more or whether they start trusting you less.
The good news about a dumb question is that it can offer a ton of insight into a greater breakdown in communication – maybe that person is lacking some context, or forgetting a critical point, or possibly your explanation was misunderstood. The better you can understand where that disconnect is, the easier it will be to bridge that gap in communication. Herein lies the key to fostering trust rather than destroying it. In responding to that question, can you take on the vulnerability? Can you remove judgement and use that question as a springboard towards greater clarity? If you can, that relationship is going to grow stronger. It helps to start from a place of gratitude for information and, incidentally, another really powerful tool in bridging that communication gap is something we discussed at the very beginning, here: statements. If you can make a statement about what you understand to be the reality and follow it up with a question to get to clarity about where that person is coming from, this can be an excellent way to take ownership of the disconnect and encourage your conversation partner to be willing to ask more questions in the future.
- So in summation, how do we create a question-friendly environment to encourage open dialogue with customers, colleagues, and employees?
- Treat all questions as an opportunity to build both clarity and trust.
- When answering a question, be grateful for the information and willing to take on any associated vulnerability.
- Be proactive about asking questions when you have them – it gives permission for others to do this same.
And why are dumb questions so important?
Because they are an enormous gateway towards building trust and understanding.