When we’re kids, asking questions comes naturally to us. Anyone who’s ever met a toddler would recognize the endless “Why, why, why” anywhere. But somewhere along the way, many of us begin to censor our questions. The reasons change for us as we grow:
- We become afraid.
- We don’t want to look stupid in front of our friends.
- We don’t want to appear like we don’t know how to do our jobs.
- We’re don’t want to look incompetent.
This is a habit that builds up slowly over time. It’s related directly to insecurity, which can be challenging to face. And for those of us who have a hard time admitting to others that we don’t know, it can be hard to admit to ourselves when we’re avoiding the truth.
Holding back hurts more than it helps
When we hold in the fact that we don’t know, we do things like nod along when we’re really lost in meetings. Or we say we’re fine to start on a project before we have all the information we need. These reactions will eventually compound on themselves, making it even more difficult to do our jobs. Think about it:
- You say you understand a request before you do.
- You start working on it with only a partial understanding of the desired outcome.
- You flounder, spend way too much time trying to come up with a result that makes sense.
- You eventually hand it back to your team only to have it handed back to you, and the whole process starts over again.
The desire to react in a way that shows your competence is extremely human and very normal. However, when we allow this reaction to begin working its way into how we navigate our jobs, it has the exact opposite effect we want it to have.
When we are too afraid to ask questions, we limit ourselves to the tools we already have. We remove any possibility of gaining more understanding, cutting ourselves off from learning and development, stagnating our growth.
You’ve got the power
Saying “I don’t know” does not make you weak. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Learning to say “I don’t know” actually gives you power!
- It provides an opportunity for you to develop relationships with your colleagues, creating space for collaboration and connection.
- It empowers your teammates to ask the questions they might be holding back.
- It encourages deeper critical thinking and more intentional decision-making.
- It challenges your team to fill in the gaps, define foggy reasoning, and find more effective solutions.
- It gives you a chance to learn and grow.
If you find yourself constantly reaching for an answer, even when there isn’t one, then you may want to evaluate your motives. Are you trying to position yourself as a leader? Are you attempting to look competent and knowledgeable? Are you worried your job will be in jeopardy if you reveal you don’t have the answer to something?
If any of these ring true, then consider two things:
- Are you in a toxic workplace that discourages people from asking for help? Will your job really be affected if you ask questions? Are your colleagues going to stop trusting you if you say you don’t know something? If so, it’s time to find a better, healthier workplace.
- If the above doesn’t seem right, it may be time to have a conversation with yourself. Ask yourself why you’re motivated to fill in the blank when you don’t have a real answer. Dig into what’s driving you. Find out what you’re afraid of and face it.
No such thing as a foolish question
Next time you feel yourself searching for an answer that isn’t there, or suppressing a question that’s arising, take a moment to pause and consider. Is your question foolish? Probably not. Try taking a risk and asking, then pay attention to what happens afterward.
Did the sky fall? Did you lose your job? Or did your team member light up and give a great answer that started a lively discussion? Did you get what you needed?
Do you feel more empowered now that you have an answer?
You deserve to feel secure in your knowledge and in what you bring to the table. Each of us comes with our strengths, and you have yours. Asking questions is a part of life, and it doesn’t detract from who we are or how capable we are of getting the job done. It does the opposite. It’s a part of growth. And it’s a crucial part of allowing yourself to be human, happy, and successful.
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