“The only stupid question is the question you don’t ask.”

What a stupid phrase. There are absolutely stupid questions that people ask of one another every day. It doesn’t mean that the people asking the questions are stupid, but that they have fallen victim to doing what everyone else does and conform. I’ve found as I coach leaders at seminars around the country that this principle is universal and happens everywhere particularly at the beginning of a relationship when we’re trying to establish report. At a time when we’re trying to be most impressive is usually when people fail the hardest and ask one of the two stupidest questions we can ask when trying to build rapport. 

What Makes Questions Stupid?

Rapport building questions should do two things: establish commonality and stimulate conversation. We like people who are like us and we enjoy novelty. If we keep these two concepts in mind, it makes it pretty clear why some questions are better than others. In other words, our questions should stimulate answers we can relate to and make the person think but most of our questions don’t do that. They instead ask for answers we don’t understand, can’t relate to and can be answered without thought.

Stupid Question Number One: What Do You Do?

Man, I hate the question “what do you do?”! I hate it because the answers are always confusing. Ask ten people what it is they do and ten people will give you their job title. The problem with a job title is that they’re confusing, no one understands what they really mean and therefore can’t connect with it. There is little commonality built around it. Worse yet, no one has to think about their answers; they just spew it out. 

Better Question

A better way to ask the same question and get the real answer to that we’re looking for is to ask something like: “What do you love about your job?” Ask this question and you will likely get a pause before someone answers because they’ve been forced to think. They will most likely tell you something that is pretty common such as working with people or solving problems. These are things we can connect with and therefore find the commonality to build a relationship. 

Stupid Question Number Two: Where Are You From?

Where are you from is a stupid question for three main reasons. 1. It’s insensitive. 2. It requires no thought to answer 3. It’s ending a sentence with a prepositional phrase. None of these are good. 

It’s insensitive when speaking with someone with an accent to ask them where they’re from because you’re highlighting that they aren’t like you. Instead of focusing on what we have in common, we’re hanging a lantern on the fact that they’re different. It requires no thought because we all know the answer and have told people many times before. Ending a sentence with a prepositional phrase doesn’t sound like much of a big deal, but it’s a small thing that smart people notice.

Better Question

My all-time favorite way to find out where someone calls home is to ask, “Where’s Home?”

It’s my favorite way because it works. People love to talk about their homes. It gives someone with an obvious accent the opportunity to tell you where they live which is more in line with making them feel included and it’s different enough that most people haven’t had to answer that question hundreds of times. It hits both marks. 

When building rapport, there are absolutely stupid questions. They’re easy to ask, but they are just as easy to not ask. By finding better ways to get the same information, we can engage in deeper, more meaningful conversations and build better relationships. All we have to do is stop asking stupid questions to do it. 

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