Why carpet cleaners should ask “stupid questions” …

We as cleaning business owners can do well in taking a lesson from small children. Kids are by nature inquisitive and take in enormous amounts of information by asking questions.  Frequently, as we grow older we lose this essential “growth trait”.

ask-stupid-business-questionsRecently I was taking part in a board meeting of an organization to which I belong. One of the senior members asked, “I have never really understood accounting reports. Would it be possible for a member of the finance committee to come and explain what we should be looking for in the financial reports?”

Two important points struck me about this board member’s question:  First, the man who asked the question was a very successful and highly respected local attorney. Certainly, the rest of us thought, someone who understood financial reports. The second point was that this attorney was brave enough to ask what might have appeared to be a “stupid” question!  Think about it …

Asking this “stupid question” took a lot of courage on the board member’s part. Immediately after he asked his question many of the other board members commented, “I feel the same way. I don’t really understand them either.” It was almost as if everyone in the room could finally exhale and breathe a sigh of relief!  This incident made me wonder how different it might be if more of us asked “stupid” questions, especially of our business, political, and religious leaders.

Also I wondered how many times we avoid asking these beneficial “stupid” questions in our own cleaning or restoration business. Is it because we’re afraid of looking bad in front of the people around us?  For example, how often do we fail to ask our bookkeeper or accountant to explain a questionable number for us because we’re afraid of looking stupid or uneducated?  Or how many times do we unquestioningly accept directions from our advertising and marketing people because we assume they know more about our cleaning customers than we do?

Seth Freeman is a professor of negotiation and conflict management at both New York University’s Stern School of Business and at Columbia University. He suggests we can avoid a lot of ego issues and encourage good communication by asking some “smart” stupid questions. Here are a few of his suggestions:

“Let me see if I understand. Is this what you’re saying?” Starting your questions this way demonstrates good listening and can overcome misunderstandings.

“I’m sorry, I don’t understand. Can you say that another way, please?” This will help reveal more clearly what the other person is saying.

This much I’ve learned. Any time I’m attacked because I’ve asked a seemingly stupid question, even if the attack is just a belittling glare, it’s usually for one of these reasons: a) The person doing the glaring doesn’t know the answer or b) I’ve caught them talking out their ear or c) they’re covering something up!

I’ve also learned that asking a “stupid” question can benefit others. After working in a group I’m often thanked privately by other members for asking these clarifying  “stupid questions”.

Maybe the real lesson to be learned here is this:  Asking “stupid” questions is really the smart thing to do. In fact, in life as well as in business the real lesson here might be that “stupid” is the new smart!

Chuck Violand (more about Chuck)
SFS Instructor
CEO Violand Management Associates

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