-1

I do not like to ask leading questions. As an example, we were going through a slide deck and there was some statement about P&L in it. I asked:

What does P&L stand for?

and someone answered its Profit & Loss - that is what I thought as well (was pretty certain) but wanted to confirm it. I also felt that they felt I did not know basic things. I could have asked:

Is P&L Profit and Loss?

but that's what I mean by a leading question and I don't like framing the question like above.

So my question: How not to ask a leading question and at the same time not let people think you don't even know the basics?

  • 7
    Why don't you like to frame the question the second way? I don't see anything wrong with asking it that way. – David K Oct 2 '18 at 20:11
  • 1
    Is this question specific to the workplace? Just wondering, because I could see this question working well over in the Interpersonal Skills site, unless there's a strong workplace element to it. – bob Oct 2 '18 at 20:27
  • 1
    Either ask them what it means (the first way), or ask them to confirm what you think it means (the second way). There really isn't any fundamentally different option here. – Dukeling Oct 2 '18 at 20:28
  • 1
    Does your workplace happen to be a courtroom? Because otherwise I don't see why leading questions would be inherently problematic. Are you worried that your leading question might be wrong? – Lilienthal Oct 2 '18 at 20:43
8

The desire to avoid leading questions is important when you're trying to avoid influencing how someone might respond. For example, I sometimes conduct user interviews to understand how people might use a product my team is working on. If I were to imply a certain solution, like "Do you try to solve this by X?" I'd be implying that agreement is correct, or is what I personally want them to say, and that would make the response less honest.

However, in a workplace it's rare to relate to a colleague in a purely observational capacity. The way you ask questions can indicate knowledge or ignorance, agreeability or hostility, assumptions about relative power/status, and more. Attempting to take an unbiased, non-leading approach in a situation where everyone has significant ongoing relationships is naive.

So if you care about not letting people think you don't even know the basics, ask questions that show a deeper level of understanding. But if you're legitimately unsure, don't hold yourself back from asking clarifying questions (though consider context and timing) -- this is the best way to learn, and hopefully your workplace supports that.

2

A leading question is only a problem when the lead prompts a person to answer, not with the information that they think is correct, but with information that they think the asker wants to hear or with information that they are predisposed to provide based on how the question is posed.

It would be a problem, for example, if a prosecutor asked a witness a leading question during a trial, as it's the witness's honest recollections that are of interest in that exchange.

This is not an issue for questions with clear, objective answers which can be externally referenced. So in your example I would say that you would not be asking a leading question if you used the second formulation.

If P&L stood for "Pumpkins and Lattes", your company's two major revenue sources during the year, it's very unlikely that you would get a different answer in either form of the question (and venturing a guess about Profit and Loss would make you look even less informed, as you not only didn't know but actively believed something incorrect).

If you really want to ask the most open-ended question possible without seeming ignorant you'll have a narrow line to walk. I recommend hedging in a way that makes it clear you have a suspicion of what is correct and just want to verify:

And, just to double check, what does P&L stand for in this usage?

Could you confirm for me what P&L stands for?

Asking a question frequently implies that you don't know the answer, or are not confident in your knowledge. Hazarding a guess suggests that you might know but are unsure. I don't know that you can provide zero information beyond your lack of certain knowledge while also giving the impression that you have more than zero knowledge.

0

To answer your question

The only alternative that comes to mind (and really isn't very good advice if you actually need the answer then and there and can't look it up yourself) is to not ask the question when you don't know--look it up later.

What I would do instead

However if you need to know what P&L means to understand the presentation, then I would ask the leading question. Trust me, it's not a bad thing at all. 1) It gets you the info you need, and 2) it demonstrates that you have some background knowledge, both of which are goals you have. And they're good goals in the workplace.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.