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Volume 15, Issue 32;   August 12, 2015: When the Answer Isn't the Point: I

When the Answer Isn't the Point: I

by

Last updated: August 8, 2018

When we ask each other questions, the answers aren't always what we seek. Sometimes the behavior of the respondent is what matters. Here are some techniques questioners use when the answer to the question wasn't the point of asking.
An investigator from the U.S. Air Force Office of Special Investigations interviews a witness

Special Agent Patrick Allen, Air Force Office of Special Investigations, interviews a witness as part of an investigation at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, North Carolina. The AFOSI provides professional investigative service to commanders of all Air Force activities by identifying, investigating, and neutralizing criminal, terrorist and espionage threats to Air Force and Department of Defense personnel and resources. One can surmise that investigators often use questions to elicit information that they derive from the behavior of the witnesses, in addition to the answers the witnesses provide. U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman John Nieves Camacho.

Not everything is what it seems. Take questions, for example. When we ask questions, we're usually seeking answers. Sometimes, though, the questioner already knows the answer. A teacher's question might guide a student to a discovery. A prosecutor's question might induce a witness to reveal inconsistencies in prior testimony. Even when we know the answer, the answer might still be the point of the question.

But there are times when the asker is more interested in the behavior of the person questioned than in the answer he or she provides. At work, we don't usually think about behavioral assessment, because we do it so intuitively. But what if someone asks a question with behavioral assessment in mind?

Here is Part I of a collection of suggestions to help you prepare for such questions. I refer to the Asker as "Alpha" and the Target of the question as "Tango." By a coin flip, I determined that Alpha is female and Tango male.

If the question is ambiguous…
Does Tango answer directly, making assumptions to resolve the ambiguities? Or does he notice the ambiguities and ask for clarification?
Alpha could be trying to determine whether Tango has the nerve to request clarification. But if Tango is too careful — if he seems wary — Alpha might interpret that wariness as an attempt at concealment. Does Tango know how to ask for clarification without seeming wary?
If the question uses arcane vocabulary…
When Tango doesn't understand the question, does he try to conceal his confusion, or does he admit to confusion, and ask for clarification?
Admitting confusion or ignorance can be difficult, especially in settings in which knowledge and sophistication are valued. Is Tango confident enough in his abilities that he can acknowledge his limitations?
If it contains erroneous assumptions…
When There are times when the asker
of a question is more interested
in the behavior of the person
questioned than in the answer
he or she provides
the question presupposes something Tango knows is false, does he offer a correction? Or does he deliver a tactful response that conceals whether or not he noticed the error?
If Tango chooses to conceal that he noticed the error, this ploy tells Alpha about his acting (or poker-playing) abilities. If he addresses the error, his response shows her how skillfully he can present the correction without offending her. This technique is also useful for determining Tango's level of expertise. Can he spot the error? Is he confident enough to offer a correction?
If it's couched in inappropriate language…
If Alpha uses inappropriate language, or displays bigotry, does Tango let it slide, or does he object? How strong or how direct is his objection?
Does Tango exhibit nerve and integrity? If Alpha is a superior, does Tango let that cow him? If Tango objects, how deftly does he manage it?

We'll continue next time with examples of tactics that are a little more hostile.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: When the Answer Isn't the Point: II  Next Issue

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