This post links in with my recent other post ‘what’s in words‘ as it looks to explore how we create those words together into speech. When analysing conversation or speech as I am here, then the term ‘utterance’ is often more helpful as speech in conversation can involve words or it may involve noises (u-huh, um, erm, harrumph etc).
Questions are interesting things as they can be used as a way to shape, guide or influence conversation, including topic changes and who speaks when (turn taking). As well as that, they can frame, constrain or increase the scope of someone’s reply. Because they can be used in that way this also means they can be used in a deliberate, innocent or clumsy way to limit or broaden conversation.
What do I mean by that. Let’s look at a questions in the context of an investigative setting:
When did you start *insert action e.g. Stealing from your employer*?
This question presupposes that the act (in this case stealing) has actually occurred. It may be that there is incontrovertible proof (maybe CCTV) and so it is fair to presuppose the theft has occurred. However, if this is in the investigative stage, it gives very little movement for the person responding. Their options:
1) refuse to answer the question which may be seen as obstructive or confrontational
2) state that you are not guilty of and/or you haven’t done the alleged theft which may be seen as not answering the question and therefore confrontational or obstructive
Options 1 or 2 would be especially hard in some contexts; under extreme pressure from individuals investigating the incident, in a courtroom or tribunal where the expectation is you answer the questions that are asked of you.
The issue with the question is that any other response that isn’t 1 or 2 above you admit the action. I suppose the other response would be to..
3) point out to the person asking the question that it is flawed and restricts your possible responses to ones that may appear rude or admit guilt…. Which may come across as arrogant or confrontational.
To explore this some more, what if we played with that question a little and made it:
‘When did you start *stealing* large sums of money from your employer?’
This question conversely gives some wriggle room as well as restricting. Yes there is the same presupposition that the individual has carried out the action and the wriggle room occurs with the addition of ‘large sums of money’. In this case, you can deny (with the same confrontational risks as above) and this time, if you have actually been stealing small sums of money, you can deny with (arguably) less guilt as it’s not a blatant lie.
What is interesting here though is the role that perception applies. In particular what constitutes ‘large’ or ‘small’.
The type of modal verb (small vs big) used can have a dramatic impact on the responses to questions. In pioneering research (at the time) Richard Harris in 1971 asked undergraduate students identical questions apart from one tiny change, the modal verb in the question ‘how ….. were the basketball players’ and consistently he found when he inserted ‘tall’ the estimates of height were considerably higher than in the ‘short’ questions.
A lady called Elizabeth Loftus found similar things in 1974 when asking eye witnesses to (video of) car crashes to estimate the speed. If she switched between ‘smashed, collided, bumped, hit, contacted’ in the question, then the estimated speed would be noticeably faster for smashed vs contacted for example. This lady in particular took her research into how you can create false memories and to explore how fallible human memory is, how it can be manipulated and the important role questions play in it. She’s also done a good TED talk found here.
What is important for us, is how much thought do we really put into the questions we ask? Here’s some examples of some ‘every day questions’ that have issues wrapped up in them. I need to make clear, I’m not applying judgement to say of the issues are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ I am saying they have issues and it would probably serve you well to consider them.
‘How soon will you get that to me?’ presupposes you will get it to the person
‘What were you thinking when you did that?’ Presupposes thought did happen and if the emphasis was on ‘thinking’ can also give the impression whatever the thinking was, it wasn’t what the person wanted/expected.
‘How realistic is it that you will actually achieve ‘X’? – implies that there may be things that will stop acheivement of X or that X is unrealistic.
‘When did your limiting belief start?’ – presupposes there is a limiting belief and it is still applying today.
What is also missing from these examples (except maybe the 2nd one) is the way the question is asked, which is harder for me to do in text.
My worry is that the assumptions around questions are:
Open = good
Closed = bad unless you want agreement or clarification
Probing = good as help you dig deeper
There is so much more to it than that.
My ask of you, please listen more to the questions you are choosing, the words you are using to see how you may be (un)consciously impacting the types of responses available to those you are conversing with.