As a blond woman with a friendly attitude and open personality, I am often underestimated.
This happens especially in workshop situations, when I ask a lot of questions like “did I understand you correctly…?”, or “so you are saying x is like this…?” as part of my facilitator role. There is often a tech or science person in the room, a real expert type, who thinks I’m just too dumb to follow.
More than once have I seen the realization on their face when it dawned on them that I did not only understand what they had been saying in the first place. But that the reason I kept asking was to sharpen the understanding of the whole group, or make sure that everyone was on the same page as to what we were talking about. In some instances it was funny to see them realize that the point behind my questions was the very fact that -they- had overlooked something. I can be nasty, I know.
So very often we are faced with the bias of someone thinking their intelligence or know-how is superior when someone else is asking questions.
I see this phenomenon often when mixed groups are working together. With a mixed group, I mean business and tech, men and women, internal and external, nearshore and offshore. Our cultural differences make us blind to different habits and attitudes when it comes to showing expertise or being open about our ignorance or innocence. Some cultures don’t take this theme lightly, and I appreciate that there can be difficulty and courage involved.
Remember Sesame Street? The kids’ show with Ernie and Bert? The German version’s jingle was “if you don’t ask you’ll stay dumb” (Wer nicht fragt, bleibt dumm). It’s tough to apply this in a room full of Senior executives. And yet, the good leaders keep asking questions. They have learned that it is wise to understand before they form an opinion. They will be the ones to ask keenly, openly, and genuinely curious. They will want to learn the details, the context, or your opinion.
Be a good leader. Keep asking questions.
Even better, encourage an atmosphere where asking questions is allowed and appreciated. There’s nothing worse than a client feeling afraid to ask a seemingly dumb question, only to realize months later that their question would have saved them thousands. Ouch.
Let me know what you think in the comments. And if you would like to be more open in tricky environments and hold yourself back, book yourself into a clarity call.