There is an old joke about the witness under oath in court that is asked by the opposing attorney, “True or False only, do you still beat your wife?”
In so many discussions I see this type of “loaded question,” particularly on topics that are driven by self-esteem issues or emotional thinking. Oh, they are not as obvious as the joke, but they are still present.
“When is your team going to stop cheating?”
“Why do you always want to hurt me?”
“Why do those stupid referees always rob us of our wins?”
“Why does their sales staff always lie?”
Obviously, the questions are often not sincere questions. That is, they are not designed to elicit useful facts for a useful discussion. No, these so-called questions are really just statements, designed to push a view, to change the topic (often to avoid a difficult subject), to win, or to make someone else lose.
To make the discussion more challenging, the questioner is rarely aware of what they are doing. It is my experience that people often do not realize what they are doing and honestly believe that by framing the topic as a question they are having a dialogue, an open discussion, an exchange of views.
The behavior is usually something done from cognitive distortions (how we fool ourselves) that are driving their view. In fact, if you challenge a loaded question with a request to re-frame it or provide more information, you will find the response is typically very defensive and evasive. Oh, they’ll answer and provide data, thinking they gave an answer. But they rarely give a useful one.
So, what do you do about loaded questions? Well, if you are asked a loaded question, first keep these points in mind:
1. The existence of a loaded question will often be your sign that an answer will be expected but likely not heard correctly. The questioner is looking to select parts of your answer to justify how their view is correct, not how you can provide a new perspective.
2. A loaded question is usually not really a question. It is a passive-aggressive action designed to look interested or helpful but is really designed to assert the agenda of the questioner. Thus, your answer is probably irrelative.
3. Loaded questions are a sign of someone that needs to win and needs you to lose. Maybe it is just about the topic at hand, but it could be about bigger things too.
With that said, consider how you respond to loaded questions. I suggest you listen for these questions and if you can’t approach the topic in a more constructive manner, find a way to not be involved in this type of dialog. You can change the topic, excuse yourself, or let them think they win. If this is your boss and this happens often, then maybe you need to take a long look at where you work and if it is a healthy work environment.
While you can try to argue you way through a “loaded question” discussion, it is not really an open discussion. The deck was stacked before you began. And if you take the bait, you’re just agreeing to fuel a disagreement, not find a resolution or answer. As the old saying goes, “Never argue with a fool, people may not be able to tell you apart.”
Glenn S. Phillips is the author of Nerd-to-English: Your Everyday Guide to Translating Your Business, Your Messages, and Yourself. His website, www.nerdtoenglish.com, will lead you to more information about effective communication training, risk assessments and genuinely helpful tips. You can email Glenn directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Glenn is also the president of Forte’ Incorporated, a consulting firm that works with business leaders to understand and address the often hidden technology and business risks lurking within their organizations.
© Copyright 2012. Glenn S. Phillips, Forte’ Incorporated. (205) 985-1111