Okay, I’m not afraid to ask anymore. Millions,
billions…trillions?….have been lost by corporations, businesses,
investors and ultimately common citizens all over the world. Where did
We don’t want to ask what we think we’re supposed to know. USAToday today has this column by a guy who says, go ahead, ask.
True confession: I am a business professor who does not
understand the financial crisis. Ask me to explain things like
derivatives and I’ll look blankly at you. My credentials in economics,
negotiation and law should qualify me to speak, but often the news
leaves me slack-jawed with confusion. Bring me to a panel discussion,
and I’ll ask dumb questions.
Actually, it’s great advice. And beware the evasive answer.
In 2001, for example, Fortune magazine reporter Bethany
McLean asked Enron CEO Jeffery Skilling a dumb question: How did Enron
make money? Skilling attacked, calling her an ill-prepared incompetent.
Yet, McLean’s article was the first to rightly ask whether Enron was
overpriced, and later, news broke that Enron never had made money. In
an interview, McLean drew a central lesson: Often, it’s the seemingly
stupid question that matters most.
Here’s the secret to the wisdom in this advice.
Complex terms fly, pressure builds, jargon flows, money
seems there for the taking and they think, “I’m the only one who
doesn’t really understand; I’d better act like I do.”
Danger lies in the fear of asking questions. That fear is helping to ruin people and destroy our economy.
This applies to every area of concern, actually. Think about
it…..what if these basic questions were asked of, say, presidential
candidates in primary debates?
“Let me see if I understand. Is this what you’re
saying?” Reveals misunderstanding, overcomes jargon and demonstrates
Thomas Aquinas did this. Clarity is such a good thing, such a simple expectation.
“How do I know?” Reveals reliability problems and unfounded claims.
Also requires the speaker to support their claims. Imagine how far
this would go if we required such substantiation by the media.
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand. Can you say that another way, please?” Reveals more clearly what the other person is saying.
And when they’re trying to avoid answering. Also proves you’re still listening.
Think of it this way then: “Dumb” is the new smart. A
healthy willingness in business, finance, investing and regulation to
say, “I don’t understand,” to stop fooling ourselves and to ask dumb
questions, could be as crucial to a bright future as anything else.
And to extend this excellent idea, a willingness to ask the right
questions in law, politics and media will help them to stop fooling us and themselves.