Good Questions, Bad Questions

Do bad questions exist? Definitely, depending on the context in which they are posed. The following are generally to be avoided:

The multiple choice question

‘Are you scared in that situation, then, or do you think it’s your partner’s fault, or …’ Instead of asking what you want to know (for example: ‘What are your thoughts in that situation?’), you start filling in the answers, making the question both closed and leading. Often people do this because halfway through the question they subconsciously start thinking ‘Oh, wait a moment, what I am asking now isn’t that clear’, and the ‘or’ falls in almost naturally. The net effect is that the other is told which answers are acceptable. Children are especially sensitive to this, and will choose a), b) or c). An adult might still say: ‘There is also an option d)’. What, then, to do about the feeling of dissatisfaction about the clarity of a question? It’s best to just let it go. As soon as you hear yourself saying ‘or’ during a question, just close your mouth. If your question really is that unclear, chances are the other will say something like: ‘Could you repeat your question?’ or: ‘I don’t understand your question’. Seldom is the question that unclear. Also, the answer will let you know whether the question didn’t quite deliver what you wanted to know, in which case you have the opportunity to reformulate it: ‘My question wasn’t really clear, I actually wanted to ask you …’. That doesn’t mean you may never ask a multiple choice question. Sometimes you explicitly want someone to choose between various options. However, when you do, you need to be sure the categories you provide as possible answers are exhaustive.

The multiple question

Where ‘or’ typifies the multiple choice question, ‘and’ does that for the multiple question: ‘How do you feel about your relationship and the situation at home?’ You now need to guess whether the answer refers to the first question or the second. Usually, either the first or the last part of the question is answered and the rest ignored. The same goes for firing off several questions at once: ‘How do you feel about your relationship? How’s it going at home? How are the children doing?’ It could be that all three are very relevant questions, yet by firing them off simultaneously you are asking too much of your conversational partner. Next to concentrating on their answer, the person now also needs to keep track of which questions they have answered and which not. In practice, they usually only answer one question when presented with several. So, next to needing to guess which question is being answered, seldom will you get a complete answer. The solution is simple: Ask one question, listen to the answer and then ask the next question!

The repeated question

A question is asked and an answer is given, and this is followed by a similar question in which in fact the same information is being asked. For an adult this may lead to irritation; they could think: ‘I just told you that!’ The person then gets the feeling they haven’t been heard, that you aren’t listening to them. Younger children in particular can’t handle repeated questions that well: They like to please and to get it right and will make an effort to adjust their behaviour to what an adult expects of them (Ceci & Bruck, 2006). They want to give the correct answer, and when the question is repeated they (unconsciously) think: ‘Oops, wrong answer’. The answer is then adjusted. Parents who have this habit may think their child is lying and then confront them with this inconsistency. The child finds itself in a difficult position: On the one hand they want to give the right answer, and make an effort to adjust their answer if the first one wasn’t to your taste; and on the other hand they are told they are a bad person for lying. Either way they lose. In jargon, this requirement of conforming to two simultaneous yet mutually exclusive demands is called a double-bind (Bateson, Jackson, Haley, & Weakland, 1956): You are doubly bound. Even though it is a redundant concept as a possible cause of schizophrenia (for which it was originally proposed), it is still seen as a pathological communication pattern in several circles – see Gibney (2006) for example. The repeated question is therefore better to avoid. If you catch yourself falling into this trap, the best strategy is to correct yourself straightaway: ‘Oh, hang on, I already know that’.

Cross-examination

When a number of (mostly closed) questions are fired off one after the other (especially when they all start with the word ‘and’), these give the other the feeling they are being interrogated. It is in any case a good strategy to alternate open questions with the occasional closed one. Sometimes, however, you need to gather a lot of factual information in a short period of time. Asking the other for permission with something like: ‘I need to get some details from you. Is it alright if I cross-examine you?’ means they know what they’re up against and don’t feel uncomfortable while you fire your questions at them.

Patronising and judgemental questions

‘Don’t you understand that …’, ‘Don’t you think …’, ‘Isn’t it obvious that …’ and such kinds of question have the subtitle: ‘You’re stupid. You should know that’. Just don’t do it. Even when you have the idea that the other doesn’t fully understand what you have said, it is better to place the blame on yourself with: ‘Have I sufficiently explained …?’

Complex questions

Long sentences with subordinate clauses and difficult words can make the other feel that they can’t see the wood for the trees. For example: ‘What contextual factors in the educational milieu give, in your opinion, rise to the experience of discrepancy in the aforementioned situation, which we have already ascertained isn’t unproblematic for either you or the child in question, but only seems to manifest itself on an individual level?’ Just as in the multiple question, probably neither the other nor you will know what exactly is being answered, given that the other cannot have understood the question in the first place. Double negatives such as ‘isn’t unproblematic’ make it particularly difficult, and can better be translated into its positive counterpart (‘problematic’, in this case). What should you do? Simple, single questions in ordinary English. The complexity of a situation can also be discovered using several (partial) questions.

Leading questions

These are generally better to avoid. A leading question is one in which you project your norms, values or judgements onto your conversational partner. Your interpretations, opinions or judgements shimmer through in your question, without the other actually having given you this information. Usually inadvertently, but nonetheless. Exaggerating, for example, when a woman is scared about what others think of her: ‘So you are scared that they think you’re ugly?’, while you don’t even know whether her worries are about her appearance, intelligence, choice in friends, or something else. How to reduce the chance of being leading? The fewer words, the simpler and the more direct the question is, the smaller the risk of being leading. Often just repeating a few words from the other’s last sentence (‘… what they think?’) with a question mark is a very effective strategy. Yet even then, a leading undertone may be transmitted via facial expression, tone of voice or gesture. With someone who is particularly stingy in the amount of information they divulge, a deliberate leading question may be used to stimulate them to tell more. In such a situation you are conscious of the suggestion and don’t see it as a fact, but merely as a means to an end.

Why the why-question seldom is a question as to why

Or the so-called hidden reproach: These are questions that actually do not require an answer. Yet they don’t have to be rhetorical, it’s that you aren’t really interested in the answer. Questions beginning with ‘Don’t you think …’ and ‘Why do you …’ are typical examples. For example, when you ask your partner: ‘Why do you always leave your dirty underwear in the bathroom?’ do you really want to know? Or would you prefer them to put it in the washing basket? The question is experienced as a reproach because it actually is one! It is not that you may never start a question with ‘why’; the ground rule is that you should only use it when you are genuinely interested in the answer. This is generally the case when asking about thoughts, feelings and beliefs, yet seldom when asking about the reasons behind certain behaviours. It is sensitive to tone, and it’s a thin line between a question and asking someone to justify themselves, which tends to put them on the defensive. Often, a simple reformulation circumvents the issue. ‘What makes that …’, ‘How is it that …’, ‘In what way does …’ and similar formulations guarantee that the situation becomes the object instead of the person.

Circular questions

The same goes for circular questions as for complex questions. In a circular question the relationship between two other people is discussed. Peter (your conversational partner, who bullies) is asked how John (another bully) thinks about Vincent (John’s victim). The thinking behind this strategy is that it would be easier for someone (Peter) to talk about the relationship between two other people (John and Vincent) than to talk about himself (Peter) and his relationship with Paul (Peter’s victim). So the aim of the question isn’t to find out how John sees Vincent, but how Peter sees himself, and how he thinks about his own behaviour, reasoning and motivations. Such questions can be useful from time to time, but are better avoided. They are usually unnecessarily complicated, and it is warranted to question whether Peter actually understands what you in the example want from him.

In summary, short, simple, unambiguous questions, asked one at a time, are the most effective.

Bibliography

  • Bateson, G., Jackson, D., Haley, J., & Weakland, J. (1956). Toward a theory of schizophrenia. Behavioral Science, 1, 251-264.
  • Ceci, S. J., & Bruck, M. (2006). Children’s suggestibility: characteristics and mechanisms. Advances in Child Development & Behavior, 34, 247-281.
  • Gibney, P. (2006). The Double Bind Theory: Still Crazy-Making After All These Years. Psychotherapy in Australia, 12, 48-55.

Excerpted from: Van Alphen, M.F. (2016). Observational Listening – The (Missing) Link between Emotion and Communication. Bloomington: Authorhouse UK.

Dutch book on Observational Listening: Van Alphen, M.F. (2015). Psychosociale gespreksvoering – observatief luisteren in de hulpverlening. Amsterdam: Boom.

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