Why there are no “silly questions” at meetings

We’ve all attended meetings where someone asks what seems to be a silly question. You’re coming to the end of a long session and suddenly, somebody pops up to ask something that you consider to be a waste of time.

Maybe they’re querying a point that has just been discussed by the speaker, or perhaps they’re asking something practical, like what time does the afternoon session begin? Either way, if you’re the speaker, you might find it annoying and think they weren’t paying attention.

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If you’re another delegate, you might resent their question, because you know the answer already and they’re delaying you from going for a coffee, or lunch, or whatever you were planning on doing.

Before you utter an audible sigh, take a step back and think, is there REALLY such a thing as a “silly question”? It’s obviously important to the person who’s asking, and imagine you’re the delegate with a query and someone else sighs at you!

Communication is the key
Quite often, the reason people query things is due to a lack of proper communication, because every question is relevant to the person asking it. If you’re a speaker and people seem to be asking you things that they should know, perhaps your presentation style is lacking clarity.

We tend to take so much for granted about what people should know, just because we’re familiar with it, but maybe we’re not taking into account people’s different learning abilities and company knowledge.

If you’re the speaker and a delegate asks you something, be courteous enough to give them a considered answer because it’s obviously not trivial to them.

Bear in mind that if one person is sitting in the meeting, feeling lost and confused, then there’s a probability others are too. How often have you not fully understood something, but haven’t wanted to be the person who admits it? Then you’ve breathed a big sigh of relief when someone else asks the “silly” question.

That “eureka” moment!
The inquisitive and curious people who ask the questions no-one else thinks of may accidentally stumble across a great “eureka” moment, without even realising it!

Lots of things are taken for granted when it comes to meetings and many questions go unasked. We accept certain things without asking why. There are several reasons why this is the case: there may not seem any point in considering a practice might be wrong, because it seems so certain it’s right.

For example, long-standing business practices continue, just because they have continued over the months or years and haven’t proved detrimental. The attitude, “If it’s not broken, why fix it?” has come into play, so people don’t question something that seems to be working.

Then, when someone simply asks the question, “Why do we do things in this sequence?” or, “Why is this software the best?” it can make other people take a step back and think. Instead of accepting something because it’s common practice, they may start to consider adopting a different strategy that’s even better.

Some practices have become so complex that in attempting to resolve one that is stagnant, it means tangling with another ten. This may mean it has been left well alone. Perhaps that “silly question” – asking, “Why are we doing this?” – might inject the necessary spark to make some changes.

Phrase your question carefully
While most people who feel confused tend to sit in the meeting without admitting it, preferring to have a quiet word afterwards with an understanding colleague, maybe it’s better to ask the question.

The secret is not to make it sound like you think something is wrong with the existing practice. For example, if you ask, “Don’t you think it’s crazy that we’re still using agency staff?” there’s a danger that this sounds opinionated. It’s far better to phrase it in a neutral way, such as, “What would happen if we stopped using agency staff?” This way, you’re not immediately alienating the management, who have put the practice in place.

Never ask the question to blame or embarrass a colleague and ensure the question is asked by way of a genuine inquiry, rather than a spurious off-the-cuff comment.

Next time you think someone is asking a silly question, avoid emitting the deep sigh and try to empathise with why they’re asking. You may be surprised by what this approach can achieve.

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Before you utter an audible sigh, take a step back and think, is there REALLY such a thing as a “silly question” at meetings?

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