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Stop Asking DUMB Questions

I spent two years of my life serving a church mission in outer Siberia. One thing I can tell you about the Russians: Never ask how they are doing?

Actually, you probably should ask, just brace yourself for a long conversation. Why? Because when you ask a Russian how they are doing, they are going to tell you. You might be thinking, "Big deal, Jason. I ask people how they are doing every day and they tell me." True, you do ask people and true, they tell you. But what do they tell you? I'll go out on a limb here and bet my motorcycle that 80% of the time what they tell you is some form of "good" or "great." Furthermore, I'm willing to bet my youngest child (sorry Esther!) that their response comes in one or two words. Don't believe me? Try it. Ask the next person you see, "How's it going?" and wait for their response.

You see, when you ask an American how they are doing, you're asking them a DUMB question. A DUMB question is a question that "Doesn't Use My Brain". It's an auto-response. It takes little or no thought. Worse yet, often when we ask a DUMB question we don't even wait around for the answer.

Case in point:

Kelsey and Allana are walking towards each other in the hallway. Allana sees Kelsey, says "Hey Kelsey, how ya doing?" and keeps walking past her. Kelsey responds by saying, "Good," but no one is there to hear her.

John calls Dimitry on the phone. "Dimitry, this is John, how are you?" "Good John, how are you?" "Fine. Say, Dimitry, I called because I need…".

It's almost like this question (and a lot of other DUMB questions) have entered into our culture as a formality, or a gatekeeper to get to what we need. We feel societal pressure to ask, but don't really care about the response. Therefore, we give a standard response and we don't listen to anything the person says.

(Just for fun, try this. The next time someone asks how you are doing, say, "Absolutely fantastic, but I'm getting better," and see how they respond. Some will just continue on like you said "fine," while others will be so taken back that you didn't respond with the societal norm, they will pause and not say anything or stumble as they try to get out their next words.)

Allow me to add one more twist to this particular DUMB question. Most of our responses are fake. Yup, we lie to people every day. Are we really fine or good? Kelsey (from the example above) could be going through one of the worst days of her life. Perhaps she's made a terrible mistake at work, maybe she had a yelling competition with her husband in the morning, or possibly she is facing a foreclosure on her house. Yet, she responds, "Good," because that is what our society tells her to. Before I explain what we can do about this, let me list several other DUMB questions:

DUMB Questions:

  • How are you?

  • How's it going?

  • How was your weekend?

  • What are you up to?

  • Where are you from?

  • Whatcha doin'?

  • How's your trip?

  • How was work?

  • How was school?

  • What's going on?

Please understand, the problem is not the question. Many of the questions listed above could be good questions. Heck, the first question gets you incredible results if you live in Russia. Ask two or three of these to a Russian and you're in for an hour-long conversation. In Russia, when someone asks how you are doing, you assume that they really want to know. The problem is that in our society these have become throw-away questions. Polite things that we say, not caring about the response, and therefore we respond without using our brain.

Ask Smart Questions.

No, I don't have some cute acronym for the word smart. I just mean, ask questions that force us to think. Smart people use their brains and if we want to truly connect with someone we need to start using our brains in how we ask our questions. Here are a few descriptors of what a smart question is.

Smart questions:

  • Cause a disruption in thinking

  • Rarely start with "How"

  • Are open-ended

  • Cannot be answered by one or two words

  • Take courage to ask because they are more personal

Let me emphasize that last descriptor. These are questions that are often not asked because people don't have the courage to go deep with another individual. They would rather stay at the superficial degree of connecting with someone because it is safe and easy. That might work for some, but if you want to make an impact in someone's life, or if you want to develop a transcendent connection so that you can lead the individual, we've got to muster up the courage and start asking tougher questions. While there is no end to the number of smart questions that are out there, here are 20 to get you started:

  1. If you could redo one thing from your weekend, what would you redo?

  2. What has been the best part of your day so far?

  3. What is the number one thing that you love about your job?

  4. What do you miss most about (previous living place, a family member, etc)?

  5. What are your thoughts about…?

  6. Can I get your feedback on….?

  7. Could you tell me more?

  8. What was your favorite part of the trip?

  9. What do you do for fun?

  10. Why do you do what you do?

  11. Everybody's got a story, what's yours?

  12. What has been most bothersome today?

  13. What did you learn in social studies today?

  14. What makes you smile when you get up in the morning?

  15. What is a book that has influenced your life?

  16. What is the most important thing I should know about you?

  17. What is the best piece of advice that you've ever received?

  18. What do you dream about? (vision, goals, long-term plans)

  19. What do you sing about? (great stuff going on right now)

  20. What do you cry about? (things that keep you up at night)

The last three in this list are my favorite. If you can remember nothing from this post, just remember to ask "What do you dream about, sing about, and cry about?" Think about what would happen to your relationships if you knew the answers to those three questions for everyone in your circle of influence? My guess, you'd live, lead, and act differently.

So here's to the death of DUMB questions and the birth of strong connections.

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