I think it was Socrates who once said: The truth lies in the question, not in the answer.
It sounds counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? On close examination however, there is a lot of wisdom embedded in this utterance, after all; this is Socrates we’re talking about! We will return to Socrates later.
Ask any self-respecting barrister / lawyer and they would tell you: Never ask a witness a question that you don’t already know the answer to. Now, you may wonder to yourself, what’s the point in asking a question that I already know the answer to? Good, keep this wonder to yourself and don’t share it with anyone else otherwise, they will think you are at best naïve, and at worst, just down right stupid. A lawyer who allows him/herself to be surprised by an answer they didn’t expect simply means they lose control of the situation in the courtroom. You don’t believe me? Okay, here are some real life examples of exchanges between idiotic lawyers and witnesses on the stand:
Lawyer: Doctor, how many autopsies have you performed on dead people?
Witness: All my autopsies are performed on dead people
Lawyer: How was your first marriage terminated?
Witness: By death
Lawyer: And by whose death was it terminated?
Lawyer: What is your date of birth?
Witness: July fifteenth
Lawyer: What year?
Witness: Every year!
Lawyer: How many times have you committed suicide?
Witness: (looking at the judge) Is that a question?
Lawyer: And where was the location of the accident?
Witness: Approximately milepost 499
Lawyer: And where is milepost 499?
Witness: Halfway between milepost 498 and 500.
Lawyer: Was it you or your brother who was killed in the war?
Witness: What do you think, counselor?
Lawyer: What was the first thing your husband said when he woke up?
Witness: He said, “Where am I, Cathy?”
Lawyer: And why did that upset you?
Witness: My name is Susan
Lawyer: Doctor, before you performed the autopsy, did you check for a pulse?
Lawyer: Did you check for blood pressure?
Lawyer: Did you check for breathing?
Lawyer: So, is it possible that the patient was alive when you began the autopsy?
Lawyer: How can you be so sure, Doctor?
Witness: Because his brain was sitting on my desk in a jar
Lawyer: But, could the patient have still been alive nevertheless?
Witness: It is possible that he could have been alive and practicing law somewhere
Those amusing exchanges give you an idea how the examining lawyer put himself in a difficult situation after the witness reply and basically lost control as the people in the courtroom, probably including the judge, fell about laughing.
As a business consultant, I took the principle of ‘good question’ to heart, sometimes too much to heart, to be honest. I agonized over my questions to make sure I extracted the right data / information from my subject. I also resented it when people did not listen to my questions carefully and answered what they felt I wanted to hear or provided what they thought I should know.
On the other hand, as a subject of interviews by business consultants, I could not help but judge the person who was asking me redundant or dumb questions. So much so, I occasionally refused to answer particularly dumb questions. For me, the dumbest questions are the closed ones that require “yes” or “No” answers like: ‘are you a good manager?”; “Are you self-starter?”; “Do you like working here?”; “Do you encourage teamwork?” However, there are dafter open questions like:
- Why are you in business?
- What motivates you?
- Where do you see yourself in 15 years?
- How would you like to be more profitable?
To be honest, I prefer the typical toddlers’ question, which nearly always starts with ‘why’. You know, they say things like: ‘Why is it morning?’ and “Why are lions, lions?” and so on. At least there is honesty in the childish questions, in the sense that they just want you to talk more about stuff and they don’t care in which direction you take your answer because they lack knowledge in all areas and want an adult to elaborate so they can sponge the information.
I sometimes play games with friends and relatives when they ask lazy questions like: “do you have the right time?” and “can I interrupt you for a minute?” and “can I ask you a question?” where my answers would be respectively: ‘yes, thank you’ and ‘ you already have’ and ‘you just did’. I know I am being a smart alec about it but, I just do it to tease them and eventually, they get what they want out of me.
In a way, I am contradicting the logic of the most famous question of all time: To be or not to be, that is the question!
In case you don’t know it, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet the hero is musing about whether to live this life (to be) and suffer its problems, or commit suicide (or not to be) and go to permanent sleep. He concludes that in his eternal sleep he may experience horrible dreams worse than the actual experience of living thus, invalidating the reason for taking his own life.
The point of my rambling is this: asking a question is occasionally about gathering information: where is the nearest police station? Would you like another cup of tea? How many people work in this office? And so on. But these questions are discoverable by other means and not ones I worry too much about. The questions I am talking about are, without trying to be pretentious, are similar to the questions Socrates was referring to. The questions that can enlighten intellectually challenge and arrive at new truths.
Clearly, carefully crafted questions can potentially have a sinister purpose and maybe designed to trap the subject, which is not the intention here. For example, you can ask some one the following two questions:
- Do you beat your wife up?
- Do you still beat your wife up?
Assuming that you are a balanced human being who is not in to domestic violence, by answering ‘NO’ to the first question, you are in the clear. However, the same answer to the second question would only half clear you because you are unwittingly accepting the premise that you used to beat your spouse but you stopped at some point.
On a more serious note, compare the following sets of similar questions:
- What changes would you like to make to your organisation to improve its productivity?
- If you were to start this business all over again, how would you organise it?
Question (a) is likely to put the person questioned on the defensive while question (b) invites him/her to open up, consider a new model based on acquired experience over the years.
- Where do you see your company in 10 years time?
- What are the prospects of your products / services in terms of evolution and development and what impact is this likely to have on your overall market share?
Question (a) is likely to give you a short and fanciful answer based on ambition and desires, while question (b) is guiding the person to analyse the state of his/her business from a number of areas such as products, marketplace and finance. The answer to (b) is likely to be richer in information and more likely to trigger secondary questions.
Back to old Socrates, he is credited, through his most famous student Plato with the concept of ‘Socratic Method’, which encourages proactive discussion through well thought out questions that promote critical thinking and may well bring out new ideas and thoughts.
So in the future, I urge you to consider your questions carefully; avoid the closed ones; avoid threatening questions; invite the subject to think; get them to be excited by the prospect of answering; above all, anticipate possible answers and work out supplementary questions.
Finally, here is a short quiz to get your logical left-brain go into overdrive:
You walk into a room with two people in it. One person is a liar who never tells the truth and the other always tells the truth. You are allowed to ask one of them a single question in order to establish who is the liar and who is the truth teller. What would your question be and how do you work out who is the liar and who is not?