Garry Shutler

Dumb questions

The truth is that smart people don't ask dumb questions

January 8, 2023 · 2 min read

The saying goes “smart people ask dumb questions” and whilst memorable it doesn’t explain “why” or provide a mental model for how to choose the kind of questions to ask.

Smart people don’t ask dumb questions, they seek to eliminate ambiguity.

That can be confirming an assumption of theirs is valid, or asking the speaker to explain a leap that they’ve made which everyone should understand.

For example, during a conversation they’ll identify a leap between two topics and not see where the bridge is between them. In this situation they’ll ask a question of the speaker to understand the context they are missing to make the same leap.

Other times they will have thoughts like “I am pretty sure they meant X, but there’s a possibility they meant Y” and then ask a question that confirms which is the case.

They’ll also have thoughts like “I understand the speaker, but that requires knowledge of X which I’m not sure everyone present does” and then either explicitly ask the speaker to cover X or a question that would fill the knowledge gap.

Whilst the smart person often has the knowledge to identify these questions, they aren’t interjecting and taking over the conversation. Instead they are leading the same speaker to demonstrate their knowledge first. They can always provide the context themselves, but that should certainly not be the first action.

The main thing they are modelling is asking questions when they have doubts or feel they, or the group, may be missing important context. Everyone can then follow this example.

The truth behind the saying is that smart people don’t worry about whether such clarifying questions, either for themselves or the group, sound dumb.

Photo of Garry Shutler

Hey, I’m Garry Shutler

CTO and co-founder of Cronofy.

Husband, father, and cyclist. Proponent of the Oxford comma.