Questions were “the principal intellectual instruments available to human beings”, author Neil Postman once said. Everything we know has its origins in asking the right question at the right moment. We can use them to prompt storytelling, elicit information or uncover hidden truths. In my article on how to ask good questions, I laid out some of the most powerful ones. But where there are good questions, there are bad questions; questions you should know when to avoid or at least be able to identify when you’re confronted with them. It all depends on what side you’re on.
1. Leading Questions
You fled the scene right after the accident, didn’t you?
The main problem with Leading Questions is their built-in answer. It prompts the person being asked how they should reply. We should avoid them if we don’t want our answers to be tainted by bias. There are good reasons why in a court of law, witnesses mustn’t be asked Leading Questions. The Misinformation Effect is one of them.
The Misinformation Effect illustrates how questions can alter someone’s memory. In an experiment, researchers showed participants footage of car accidents. Days later, they asked them a series of questions. The participants who were asked Did you see the broken glass? were more likely to say Yes than those who were asked Did you see broken glass?
The first version implies that there was broken glass in the first place (which, in the experiment, there wasn’t). The second one leaves the answer open. One innocent little word, the, turned the question into a leading one. So don’t fool people if you’re after an unbiased response. And don’t be fooled by people who want to manipulate you into giving a certain answer.
2. The W-Word
Why did you get a dog?
Why? is one of the deepest questions we can ask ourselves and others. Why? Because it prompts us to reflect on the reasons behind our words and actions. That’s why it can also come across as confrontational. Just try playing the Why-Game, a debating activity designed to practice resilience and quick-wittedness. The W-Word triggers defensiveness and the need to justify ourselves, making it less likely that we collaborate.
That doesn’t mean we can’t ask for reasons. Negotiation expert Chris Voss suggests less confrontational alternatives. We could ask: What caused you to get a dog? or What were your reasons for getting a dog? This small change in how your question is phrased softens the tone and can make it more likely we get a useful answer.
According to Voss, there’s an exception to the rule. If the confrontational nature of the question works in our favour. We could ask: Why would anyone ever get a dog? In this scenario, respondents are not put on the spot. They’re challenged to find reasons others would give and will be prompted to reveal which are most important to them.
3. Double-Barreled Questions
Are you the person responsible for the car crash, high gas prices and world hunger?
Double-Barreled Questions pack two or more queries into a single sentence. In doing so, they cover more than one topic but only leave room for a single answer. In our example, the respondent might be responsible for the car crash. Even though high gas prices and world hunger are not on her. Yet, the whole question demands a single Yes or No answer.
Double-Barreled Questions not only overwhelm the person being asked. As every teacher and pollster knows, they’re also a nightmare to evaluate if you don’t have any chance to ask for clarification. A better strategy is to break the question down into its components, each covering one topic. This way, you get your answers for each question and can even make sense of them.
4. Loaded Question
Do you condone this catastrophe of a fashion choice?
Loaded Questions are not dissimilar to leading questions. They guide the respondent towards an answer but in a manipulative way. Loaded Questions are designed to trick people into saying something they don’t believe or something with which they don’t agree.
Our example is a particularly sneaky one. If we answer in the negative, people will assume we think the fashion choice is, in fact, a catastrophe. Replying with a Yes will make us appear complicit in a terrible case of wardrobe violation. The best response is to reject the premise of the question entirely.
5. Cunningham’s Law
George W. Bush was the only U.S. President who never started a war.
This statement is, of course, bogus. But it’s a great illustration of Cunningham’s Law. Because sometimes the best question is the one we don’t ask. Instead, Wiki developer Ward Cunningham suggested: “The best way to get the right answer on the internet is not to ask a question, it’s to post the wrong answer.”
What sounds like a satirical adage has a true core. Much of Wikipedia’s success is built on people finding mistakes in articles and correcting them. On and beyond the internet, it exploits our human addiction to correct other people for their mistakes. It’s as if we can’t help ourselves but show the world that we know better.
Typically, the person asking questions is at an advantage as the other person has to react. Not just the dreaded W-word, anything ending in a question mark can give your intentions away and put the respondent on the defence. So keep Cunningham’s Law in mind the next time you’re facing a professional question evader.
Questions may be humanity’s “principal intellectual instruments” to knowledge discovery. But that is not to say that sometimes, humanity seems to get in its own way. We have to learn how to use those instruments to apply them effectively. You can use a microscope to hammer a nail the same way you can use a leading question to find out what someone thinks. Like any tool, questions can be misused and misapplied. That said, everything we know has its origins in asking the right question at the right moment or posting the wrong answer on the internet.