What Makes a Leading Question?
Leading questions happy to everyone. For instance, you're at a job interview, everything is going well, when suddenly, the person asking the question asks a oddly pointed question.
Not that it's inappropriate per se, but the interviewer seems to have a clear preference for a certain answer.
"Do you have a problem working overtime on weekends?"
"You haven't got kids, right?"
Both of these are examples of "leading" questions, a type of query that prompts a respondent to answer in a certain way. Some people think of questions like this as simply being direct. The trouble is, leading questions make it more likely that:
A: The person will answer dishonestly
B: The person will become defensive about his/her answer
Neither of these outcomes is preferable. And unfortunately, job interviews aren't the only place we encounter poorly constructed questions.
Leading Questions in Political Polls
Leading questions are a huge problem in the world of data collection, especially in polls and surveys. For example, consider this actual question asked in a poll by Fox News.
“Do you agree or disagree with the following statement: the federal government has gotten totally out of control and threatens our basic liberties unless we clear house and commit to drastic change.”
Not only is this a leading question, it's also double barreled, meaning it asks multiple questions at once. Imagine, for example, if someone agreed to the "drastic change" portion of the question but not the "clear the house" portion. This negatively affects the accuracy of the responses and creates problems in trying to interpret the results.
Leading Questions in Conversation
Leading questions aren't just a problem in professional situations. Everyday conversation is peppered with them, and they rarely do any favors in terms of conversational ability. For example consider the interrogative:
"You're coming to my birthday party, right?"
Leading Questions Hurt Conversation
Unless the asker knows almost certainly that this is person is indeed coming to his party, this question comes across as rude, bordering on aggressive. The phrasing makes it seem as though the assumed response to the question will be "yes". Thus, if the response is in fact "no", you've just made it much harder for this person to decline your invitation. A much more neutral (and generally polite) way to ask this question would be:
"Do you think you'll be able to come to my birthday party?"
So unless you want to be that guy who verbally traps people into attending to social functions, leading questions are not your friends. But how can we make sure we avoid them?
Correcting Leading Questions
The best way to avoid leading questions is to learn to recognize them. This way you can examine your own communication, and ensure you are asking things in a way that invites the respondent to answer truthfully. So let's take a look at a few leading questions.
Have you ever sent a text message while driving?
Asking the question in this way sounds almost accusatory; everyone knows that people aren’t supposed to text and drive, so it’s unlikely anyone seeing the question phrased like this will feel totally comfortable.
- About how often in the last month have you sent a text while driving?
- When driving, about how often do you send a text before arriving at your destination?
Do you post a lot of pictures on Instagram?
Similar to the 1st question, this question sounds as though the suggested behavior is problematic or looked down upon. Specifically, “a lot” is vague and could sound judgmental.
-On a scale of 1-10, how often do you post on instagram?
-How many times in the last month have you posted on instagram?
Do you prefer big box stores or independent, locally-owned stores?
This question also sounds biased; “big box” is rarely used as a complimentary term. In additional "independent" and "locally owned" are both generally seen as positive words. Thus, the question is clearly biased toward local stores.
-Do you prefer shopping at local or national retailers?
-Which would you rate more highly: your experience with independent stores or national chains?
Do you mostly buy things that are on sale?
This sounds like the asker might be judging the respondent for not paying full price. Nobody wants to be thought of as "cheap."
-Would you prefer to buy something sooner at full price, or a month later for a lower price?
-How you enjoy bargain hunting?
Do you actually like pumpernickel bread?
This makes it sound like a person is strange for liking a perfectly normal (and delicious, I might add) type of bread.
-Is Pumpernickel among your favorite types of bread?
-On a scale of 1-10, how much do you enjoy Pumpernickel bread?
Leaving Behind Leading Questions
To wrap up, leading questions affect people both professionally and personally. If you'd like people to answer your questions honestly, whether your interviewing them or inviting them someplace. If your questions sound as though one answer is problematic, then it may be time to analyze the way you communicate and aim for a more neutral tone.