People ask stupid questions for a reason

Did you notice that this article’s title is a contradiction in terms? Reason implies intelligence, so if you ask a question for a reason, it cannot be a stupid question. And since all questions are asked for a reason, there are no stupid questions. Well, if there are no stupid questions, what kind of questions do stupid people ask? Guess what? There are no stupid people, only people. “Stupidity” is not a reality; it’s merely a label. We stick it on people to compensate for our own insecurity.

If there were such a thing as a “stupid” person, I guess it would be someone who didn’t ask questions. How can we learn, if we don’t ask? When we stop asking questions, we stop learning. When we stop learning, we turn off the music of life; we stop existing. An infant crawls along the floor not with its arms and legs, but with its curiosity, its relentless desire to discover. We need to protect and nurture that insatiable curiosity so that all through life we will give birth to an endless stream of discoveries. Questions, then, are tools that unlock answers and generate power.

Questions give us significance and a reason for being, for as Carl Sagan writes, “As long as there have been humans we have searched for our place in the cosmos. Where are we? Who are we? We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe. We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and by the depth of our answers.”

Getting to know you

Use the power of questions to strengthen your relationships. When you make a new acquaintance, ask many questions. How else can you develop an understanding and appreciation of your new friend? Your questions not only feed you with information, but also communicate your interest in the other person.

How do we stoke the fire of love in our family life? Not with hollow phases, such as, “I love you.” But with penetrating questions, such as, “How did I hurt you? What can I do to make up for it? What can I do to become a better friend? What would you like me to stop doing? What would you like me to do more of? What would you like me to understand about you?”

If you’re not asking your spouse and children questions, you’re doing all the talking, which means you’re not displaying any interest in them. Or, it can mean that you’re just pretending to listen to what they say. True listening is a dialogue, for it needs verification, clarification, and amplification.

We often start conversations with a question. For example, we may ask, “What do you think about the woman who drowned her five children?” But how do you respond to an answer you disagree with? If the conversation deteriorates into a squabble about capital punishment, for example, your question did not release power, but weakness. Your friendship has not grown stronger, but cooler.

What did you do wrong? You failed to seize an opportunity. You failed to ask yourself the right questions. When you strongly disagree, you should be asking yourself, “How can I become more tolerant? How can I expand my own understanding of the subject by considering my friend’s arguments? How can I use this as an opportunity to understand how the other side feels.” Disagreements, then, are opportunities to express unconditional love. We may not agree with our friend’s opinion, but we agree with their right to share a different view, and we value their uniqueness.

Sometimes a friend will ramble on incoherently. Instead of asking yourself what’s the point they’re trying to make, and growing frustrated, ask yourself what is the real message they are communicating. Perhaps they’re just seeking validation. They’re just saying, “Look! I’m here. What do you think of me? Do I have any value?” In other words, you may be lucky enough to be faced with an opportunity to be compassionate. You can pat your friend on their back, laugh at their jokes, and let them know you are happy to be with them whether or not they have anything significant to say at this time.

Recently, I visited a 92-year-old relative. During the forty years that I’ve known her, she’s always been negative. For example, when I would write to her in my twenties, instead of answering my letters, she would return them with spelling, grammatical, and stylistic corrections! Always complaining, it seemed she never had a kind word to say about anyone. This time it was no different. “Chuck,” she said, “why does your wife speak such poor English?” (Since my wife was born and raised in Japan, she speaks with an accent.) Although I have always tried to accept my relative unconditionally, I thought it may be time for a change. After all, the other residents of the retirement community complained about her negativity.

So, this time, after she complained about my wife’s apparent failure to master English, I decided to ask a question. Looking her straight in the eye, and without any animosity, I said, “Why would you say such a mean thing?” The power of questions is that they provoke thought. For as Francis Bacon wrote, “A sudden bold and unexpected question doth many times surprise a man and lay him open.” I am happy to announce that old dogs can learn new tricks. For that simple question forced my relative to think about her actions. And in the next few days, I was amazed at how she opened up.

Before leaving, I told her I was working on a book. “I suppose,” she said, “when your name appears on the cover, it will be followed by B.A. and M.A.” “No, I said. “Degrees are not important. The President of one of the largest advertising companies in the world, Saatchi & Saatchi, has only a ninth grade education. Just because he quit school doesn’t mean he quit learning. On the contrary, he’s one of the brightest men in business.”

After the above explanation, my relative asked a question that I found astonishing. “You mean, I don’t have to be ashamed that I only have a high school diploma?” You see, her husband had a Master’s Degree and everyone in her field had a B.A. or M.A. She started out at the bottom of the ladder in her profession, but because of her great talent became the manager of a department, overseeing college graduates. I never knew she didn’t have a degree. Suddenly, all the pieces came together! No wonder she was correcting my letters 40 years ago. It was her way of saying, “I may not have a degree, but I’m not stupid. I’m smart enough to correct your letters.” She let her “lack of education” bother her all these years!

During the next few days, I believe she came to realize that she had nothing to be ashamed about. Just the opposite, her many accomplishments more than justify a great deal of pride. I think both of our lives were changed the day I asked that simple question.