Sarah spent the afternoon working on a quarterly report for her boss, only to hear this when she delivered it at day’s end: “This isn’t a final version, is it? It won’t be a problem for you to work overtime today and fix this, will it?”
Her boss just delivered a question trap—a leading question to which the “right” answer is agreement.
If Sarah gives the “right” answer, she feels manipulated. Even if she doesn’t mind working overtime, she may resent the way she was asked. She may also feel that the wrong answer could upset her boss—and she may be right.
Here’s what to do with leading questions:
1. Recognize them by their phrasing, such as “don’t you think?” or “can’t we?” Also learn to recognize how they make you feel or respond. Are you more or less likely to agree with someone who asks a leading question?
2. See the question, not the person, as pushy. That perspective will help you handle the situation more constructively, instead of viewing others as domineering or closed-minded.
Next, you can reframe the person’s leading question in one of three ways:
1. Focus on the opinion. For example, Sarah might have said, “It sounds like you think I should make some additional changes to the document. Correct?"
2. Center on the question. Restate the question you were asked.
Example: “You want to know whether I can stay late today to do some additional changes. Is that right?”
3. Concentrate on the person’s opinion and his question, to check your understanding.
Example: “It sounds like you’d like for me to stay late today and finish up this document, and you’re wondering whether I can do that. Do I understand that right?”
In some cases, you may want to go with tactic No. 3.
That way, you can focus the discussion on the person’s point of view, without feeling obligated to respond right away.
For example, imagine someone says, “I think we’re rushing this decision, don’t you?” You can first focus on his opinion—“It sounds like you think we’re rushing the decision”—then ask him to clarify. “Could you tell me why you think that?”
In any case, the more you practice, the better you’ll get. And the more likely you’ll “train” other people to avoid setting question traps in the first place.
— Adapted from Conversation Transformation, Ben E. Benjamin, Amy Yeager and Anita Simon
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