Why? Why? Why are you worried asking questions will make you look incompetent?

Asking questions is an important – actually vital – part of good communication in the workplace, yet it can sometimes be difficult for us to do due to fear of looking incompetent. What core leadership skills can we develop to help?


Why are we doing this?

Can you please explain?

What do you mean when you say that?

Questions are an important part of communication. We can all see the benefits of asking smart questions at work: it shows that we’re engaged with the conversation, it helps us understand topics we might be struggling to grasp and it ensures clear communication between parties when discussing things like project briefs.

And of course, questions help us learn – classical Greek philosopher Socrates, who invented a method of dialogue based around questions, said “the highest form of Human Excellence is to question oneself and others”.

As you have probably noticed, young children use questions constantly as they gather information about the world. Journalist Warren Berger, author of “A more beautiful question”, says we are trained out of asking questions as we grow older – by parents, by teachers and later by leaders in the workplace.

Consequently, many adults refrain from asking questions because we think it will make us seem weak or even stupid. We find it difficult to ask for help.

The consequences of not asking questions – with horses!

When conducting our leadership training, I see the downfalls of not asking questions for clarification and problem solving.

Just last week, we hosted an off-site meeting for a team from a large consulting firm here at Leading Edge that included a team building activity with our horses.

Our team building activity involves splitting the client group into small teams of people and ask them to negotiate an obstacle course together with one of our horses as an equal member of the team.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it?

By nature, consulting firms attract highly motivated, driven and intelligent employees of the highest calibre. A consultant’s role involves being task oriented, outcome driven and highly efficient. These are great strengths – there is no denying that.

However, as a leader, “having your eye on the prize” so to say, won’t work unless every team member knows what the prize is and how to get there.

One of the teams was working with our horse, Vinnie. There were times when his two human team mates could not get him to take even one step forward. And other times when he wandered away from his teammates altogether. What was going on?


Vinnie was clearly asking questions of his teammates – ‘What is going on here? What’s our plan?’,  but as the team were so focus on the end result, they had failed to notice. Just as we see in the work place, there are times when being so focused on the end result, individulas may keep going down their own path, without listening to the questions of others or asking for their help or opinions. Tin our exercises, this is frustrating not only for the human teammates, but for the horse teammate who has their own input to give but are asking their questions in a different way. The difference is, the horse won’t do what he doesn’t want to do, and there’s no forcing an animal of that size! In this example, the people had to stop and evaluate their behaviour, and eventually ask others what to do.

As leaders, it is our responsibility to ask questions that ensure every member of the team understands what is expected of them. In fact, we should take the lead by asking questions ourselves and thereby role modelling that it is more than ok to do so. Asking questions and really listening to the answers allows us to respond flexibly to the different needs of all members on our team.  

Also evident in our exercises, and indeed paralleled in the workplace, are the times when team members may be too scared or worried to ask a question, for example if they don’t quite comprehend the brief. They continue to struggle on even though they don’t know or understand exactly what to do. The horse eventually gets frustrated and starts walking away– much the same response as we get from people whose engagement we lose.

Core skills to help get over question-asking fear

Like many areas of leadership, I believe the art of asking a question comes back to developing core skills.

Self-confidence is one – the more confident you are as a leader, the more you can combat that fear of looking silly.  

Active listening is another – if you really make the effort to understand what someone is saying, then you know you’re asking a question that is relevant and hasn’t been answered already.

Also, what I call consciousness – being able to see how your behaviour affects others, and also see things from their point of view. This helps with that worry that you’ll look foolish, because you’ll realise that most of the time people are too concerned with how they themselves appear to dwell on what you said. And, being self-aware can also help us push aside that ego which might be preventing us from putting our questions out there.

And, the more we ask questions, the better our consciousness becomes in turn.

Remember too, that asking good questions is a skill that needs to be developed like any other. Practice makes perfect. In fact, as part of our Horse Certification training we practice open-ended questions daily – it is ingrained in what we do. We even sell a pack of cards each with a different open-ended question for our trainees to practice, practice and practice this important skill.

Have a question for us? Email us at info@lepd.com.au