I was teaching a class recently when somebody raised his hand to ask a question. After I answered it, then he asked a follow-up, which I responded to as well. Both times, he apologized for asking those questions, despite my assurances that questions are important.
How often do bosses and managers issue these reminders? “There are no stupid questions!” “Please ask as many questions as you need!” “I’m always on hand to answer questions.” Yet when people take advantage of these invitations, they often do so apologetically: “I’m sorry, just wanted to ask . . .” “Sorry, but I’m wondering whether . . .”
So let’s get one thing straight: You should never apologize for asking questions. It doesn’t just reflect badly on you, it can weigh down everyone else on your team. Here’s why.
It hampers collective intelligence
The questions that typically get asked in meetings (or any group setting) are meant to get clarity on a difficult concept. One of the most dangerous limitations in any organization is what psychologists refer to as the “illusion of explanatory depth,” which simply means that people tend to overestimate how well they understand things when they hear others explain them. It’s typically only when someone tries to explain a concept to themselves, and comes up short, that they realize the gaps in their own knowledge.
When you apologize for seeking clarification, you reinforce the illusion of explanatory depth that others is the room are likely to be under. “Sounds like Katja doesn’t get it, but I do,” some of your coworkers may falsely tell themselves. Others will be silently grateful for your question but discouraged from asking their own the next time they need to. Ideally, your question provides an opportunity for everyone else to recognize and fill the gaps in their knowledge, but you risk cutting off that opportunity by prefacing it with, “Sorry!”
But ultimately, even if you are the only one in the room with this question, your understanding still matters, because you can’t use knowledge that you don’t have to solve future problems.
It conceals the faulty assumptions behind proposed solutions
A second crucial type of question tries to uncover the assumptions behind a recommendation or instruction. A suggestion for a given course of action may seem quite reasonable on the surface until you start to think about how to implement it. Getting insight into navigating these operational details matters a lot, but by apologizing before asking this type of question, you risk making yourself seem like the impediment (“Ugh, if only Peter weren’t such a naysayer!”) rather than the idea you’re questioning.
Few suggestions are categorically great–bound to work under any circumstances. Often, the success or failure of a given course of action depends on a lot of different factors, and only when you delve into its underlying assumptions can you start to weigh those contingencies. (This is particularly true when you have a better grasp of the details than the person leading the meeting or throwing out proposed solutions.)
It makes it harder to chase the same goals
It’s natural to worry that your question might sound disruptive, and risk slowing down a conversation that could move smoothly ahead if only you didn’t interrupt. It’s one reason why people avoid asking questions, even when they and everyone else would benefit from the answer.
Ample research on so-called “goal contagion,” though, suggests that people automatically adopt goals that they see others pursuing. In other words, your questions will free others to ask their own–all of which are likely to be geared toward achieving a shared objective. But if you apologize for asking your question, you send the message that asking questions is actually the wrong thing to be doing, which in turn can limit the team’s ability to pull together in pursuit of the same goal.
Ultimately, the worst way to learn anything new is to have someone lecture at you. Information washes over you, and you’ll only remember a small amount of it. The more you actively engage with material, the more likely you are to learn it. When an entire room is full of people asking questions–unapologetically–the odds go up that something valuable will come of their pooled efforts.