Picture yourself in a classroom or at a meeting at work, and you want to impress your teacher or boss by showing them you are knowledgeable about a given topic or subject matter.
Which do you think would make you you seem smarter in the eyes of experts: 1) Rattling off as many facts as you know about the subject, or 2) Asking one insightful question that shows you have a grasp of the material and understand where key conflicts emerge.
Many of us are tempted to do the first. We falsely believe that if we show people how much we learn by reciting all the facts, then it’s clear we have a deep understanding of the subject. Naturally, the more facts you know about a subject the smarter you’re likely to be in it.
But asking one good question about a topic can often communicate a lot more information in a much simpler way. Asking good questions shows that not only do you understand the facts about a subject, but you also recognize the types of questions these facts will lead to.
We are often afraid to ask questions for fear of looking stupid, so it’s nice to know that one recent study shows that when individuals ask questions, they are actually seen as more competent and knowledgeable than those who don’t ask questions.
Here’s how asking good questions can make you look better in the eyes of experts:
- Asking good questions communicates knowledge of the facts. – One simple question can communicate an understanding of the facts more eloquently than listing multiple facts. Good questions often see things from a bigger picture perspective that requires at least some understanding of the details as well.
- Asking good questions shows you care. People who ask questions show that they care about the subject matter and they want to learn more. If you never ask anyone questions, it’s often because you either assume you already know the answers (“overconfidence”) or you don’t care about the answers (“apathy”). When you ask any question, it shows that you admit that you don’t know everything, but you’re willing to learn.
- Asking good questions gives the “expert” an ego boost. People often like to be asked good questions, especially about what they know and care about. It gives the person an opportunity to share their knowledge and make themselves feel helpful and useful, which can often give them a temporary “ego boost” as well.
Here’s a great video by NYMag summarizing the key lessons discussed above:
Bad questions exist too
Of course, while there are many benefits to asking questions, bad questions certainly exist too.
While most honest questions shouldn’t be ridiculed or made fun of – especially if a person is genuinely trying to learn – some things that characterize the typical “dumb question” include:
- Asking a question about something that was just recently talked about.
- Asking a question about something elementary that doesn’t reflect your current stage of the learning process.
- Asking a question as a way to mock, without the intention to receive a serious answer (“sarcasm”).
It’s important to keep these small things in mind, but chances are that most questions are fine to ask, and we should feel free to ask them when we have them. Many times asking good questions is more powerful than having good answers.
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