When teaching classes or leading groups, I often say, “there is no such thing as a stupid question.” I say this to make sure that everyone feels comfortable, and I very much appreciate questions that imply that students or members of the audience are critically thinking about what I have talked about, that they want to learn more, or that they want to ask one more burning question so they can take the information I have discussed, research some on their own, and go out and solve the problems of the world! Yet, please know that there are, in fact, many stupid questions.
I walk into every new class with the utmost respect for students and enthusiasm for getting to teach and work with them. At the same time, there are questions that kill me and I want to say, “Of course, you did not miss anything because I don’t generally prepare for this class and we also wanted to wait until you got back….why yes, I have a stapler and any other office product you may need to complete your assignment because I want to enable your irresponsible behavior…no, the information will not be on the exam, nor will you ever need it in your life as I just went into this profession so that I could hear myself talk more.” So, perhaps, what I should add to “there are no stupid questions” is “…as long as your questions do not imply that you do not want to learn, that you are not prepared, or that you are only there because you have to be. Think this sounds a bit harsh? Maybe, but I assure you that most of your professors feel the same way. These are some of the professionals that can serve as references for you, and with regard to the questions you ask, a similar concept applies to interviews for a job or internship.
When preparing for a job interview, you may generally think of how you will answer questions you will be asked by the interviewer(s). Yet, it is just as important to think of what questions you will ask THEM. Asking them questions about the agency/company or position to which you are applying for can help you to know if the job is a good fit with your strengths, interests, and career goals. Asking good questions can also show the interviewer the level of insight you have or that you have done your homework and came to the interviewer prepared. See the article, To Ask Them or Not to Ask Them, for more information and examples of good/bad questions.
Four tips for avoiding “stupid questions,” include the following:
Do your homework. Do not ask professors or interviewees questions that could have been answered with an internet search, reviewing the syllabus, reading the position announcement, or by viewing the company’s website.
Think critically about the types of questions you ask and what they say about you. The types of questions you ask and how you ask them can reveal a lot about your initiative, intelligence, and character. For example, asking a question just to be asking or not having any questions might imply that you have not taken the time to research the company, that you do not know enough about the job or requirements to ask, or that you do not care. If you are going to ask something like, “will you be doing drug tests?” or “how many hours a week do I have to work?” or “do employees get breaks during the work day?” you might as well say, “If you have drug tests, I will likely fail…and my goal is to do the least amount of work possible to get by.” Instead, focus on questions such as, “I noticed on your website that you to ‘X’; is this something I would be involved in if I were hired for this position?” OR “The position description implied that I would be doing ‘Y,’ can you elaborate and tell me more about what this would entail?” As you are preparing for interviews, write down a list of questions and think about how you would perceive them if you were an employer. Would you hire others that you do not know based on these questions? Ask responsible and experienced peers or your mentors to read the questions you have prepared and tell you whether or not they would judge your character or professional work ethic based on these questions.
Reveal your passion. Show professors or employers that you are passionate about the field, your role, or responsibilities or tasks required of the class or job. If you are excited about your career path and the field you are in, you will likely be more internally motivated to do great things in the class, company, and organizations. You will also be more likely to take initiative. Let the professionals who are watching you see this; demonstrate and talk about your passion for the field.
Remember that less is more. You do not have to go on and on about your passions, knowledge, or experiences. In fact, part of the point here is that the questions that you ask can reveal that you are passionate, you have done your homework, and that the position or company is a fit with your professional goals and interests. Sometimes the question or a 1-3 sentence response is perfectly fine so long as you have practiced them and know that the response articulates what you want to say.
The art of asking good questions comes with preparation and planning and most of this piece really emphasizes social skills. Your social skills can be more important than the job application materials, or they can influence how the job application materials are perceived by hiring managers. For other related articles on Career Skillet, see Say WHAT; How to Address Problem Situations, What to do with a Bad Grade, Professional Work Ethic, and The Art of Self-Disclosure.