Growing up, I was particularly shy. As I got older, I began to overcompensate for this perceived weakness and always tried to fill the void with my voice, whether or not my perspective was well informed. I soon discovered my occasional “dumb” comments had a power all their own.
It all started in college. I was in a business management class. The textbook was dry and most of us hadn’t read it. When the professor asked us a question, collective guilt silenced the room, so I proceed to share my uninformed opinion on the unfamiliar subject. Immediately following, hand after hand shot into the air. My “dumb” response inspired a chain reaction of people trying to contribute their own point of view—perhaps my comment wasn’t so dumb after all.
Now I sit in meetings instead of classrooms. Sometimes it seems like time is wasted because there is so much back and forth and little actually getting done. But then I realize that meetings are not a trajectory upward, but a conversation. In a good meeting, there’s some recognition for a notably good idea but certainly no shame for a bad one. In fact, the bad ideas—even the very worst ones—can help inspire a group of people think outside the box.
As a journalist, I ask people questions for a living. And, like every other journalist, I have stumbled onto one common mistake when interviewing someone I particularly admire: showing off. A “question” quickly becomes a soliloquy about how well-versed you are on the topic, and eventually revealing your own conclusion. With nothing left to say on the subject, the interviewee usually responds, “Yeah, that sounds about right.” Tell me a time when you’ve seen a famous person quoted in an article as saying, “Yeah, that sounds right.”
It can be challenging to do, but in interviews and even casual conversations, try asking the dumbest question possible. You’ll find that concealing your knowledge about a subject actually encourages others to share their perspective. Interestingly, if you think someone may be lying, asking a dumb question may help lower their guard which could result in a potential slip-up (as my award-winning investigative journalism professor recommended).
The more you take a chance at being the dumb one in the room, the easier it becomes—it can be addicting!