Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 6, Issue 45;   November 8, 2006:

Nasty Questions: I

by

Some of the questions we ask each other aren't intended to elicit information from the respondent. Rather, they're poorly disguised attacks intended to harm the respondent politically, and advance the questioner's political agenda. Here's part one a catalog of some favorite tactics.
The game of chess, a strategic metaphor

The game of chess, a metaphor for strategic situations of many kinds.

Ellen held up her hand, palm facing Jim. He stopped talking. She rose, walked to her door, and closed it. The conversation would probably get a little tricky, and she wanted privacy. She returned to her chair and sat.

"He'll probably ask when you'll get things back in control," she said.

"But they're in control now," Jim replied. "Oh," he continued, "the loaded question."

Ellen has just reminded Jim of a tactic he might face in an upcoming meeting — the loaded question. It's one of many nasty questions we ask each other, not to elicit information, but to gain advantage. Here's part one of a little catalog of nasty questions.

Ambush questions
Asked in public, either by email or by voice, in meetings or telemeetings, this is a pressure tactic, designed to place the target in a compromising position in the view of others. See "The Tweaking CC," Point Lookout for February 7, 2001, for more.
Preparation helps, but be willing to try the "reverse ambush." Leave out some important information, and when a would-be attacker tries to ambush you about it, you'll be ready.
Leading questions
Leading questions contain instructions as to the "correct" answer. For instance, "You'll get your monthly report to me on time this month, won't you?" is a leading question, while "When will you get me your report this month?" is open-ended.
Leading questions are especially useful to the questioner when the questioner has organizational power over the target. But unless the "correct" answer is a fit, give an "incorrect" answer. See "Saying No: A Tutorial for Project Managers" for more.
Loaded questions
The loaded question
contains a presupposition
to which the target
probably wouldn't agree
Loaded questions contain presuppositions to which the respondent probably wouldn't agree. To address the presupposition, the respondent must first decline to answer, which can look evasive, eroding the respondent's credibility. An example: "When do you think you'll be able to bring this project under control?" This presupposes that the project is out of control.
Consider pointing out the presupposition as part of your response. See "The Power of Presuppositions," Point Lookout for September 1, 2004, for more.
Implied accusations
Questions can be implied accusations when they're specific enough to cause listeners to believe that there must be evidence for the accusation. For instance, when a project is late due to a late delivery by a supplier, an implied accusation might be, "Is that vendor's sales rep your brother-in-law?" The implied accusation is that nepotism is a contributing factor in the persistence of the problem.
Don't be afraid of looking defensive when you actually are playing defense. The cost of letting things slide is even higher. Implied accusations must be dealt with firmly and immediately. Consider raising questions about the legitimacy of the issue, and the intentions of the questioner. See "Dealing with Implied Accusations," Point Lookout for January 10, 2001, for more.

There are more ways to ask nasty questions, and we'll look at some more next time. But your interest is defensive only, because you never ask them yourself, do you? Go to top Top  Next issue: Nasty Questions: II  Next Issue

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