Questions are basic to all forms of communication, especially those we ask in our relationships. Sometimes such questions touch upon sensitive themes, and if you want answers, you need to know how best to pose them. You’d like to know whether someone is being truthful, or perhaps whether the other person is someone you’d like to get to know better. In a close relationship, you need to be able to get into areas that, similarly, can prove challenging.
Social science researchers know full well that the way you ask questions determines in large part the nature of the answers you receive. You can, for example, ask a forced-choice question, where the person has to pick a, b, c, or d. Or you can ask an open-ended one, leaving the interviewee free to say whatever he or she wishes. A new paper by University of Essex’s Alita Nandi and London School of Economics’ Lucinda Platt (2017) shows when the mode of question-asking is particularly important for getting people to reveal their true feelings.
The British authors report on a two-part study in which, on the first occasion, interviewers questioned participants in person. One year later, they asked a randomly selected half of the original participants to respond to the same questions over the telephone and, once again, in person. The authors primarily wanted to see whether respondents would be as honest in person as they were over the telephone. In an in-person situation, you may be more trusting of the interviewer, but also less willing to provide honest self-disclosures.
A second problem survey researchers face is the problem of satisficing, in which respondents answer as quickly as possible, but not necessarily in the most truthful manner. To understand this concept, consider the situation in which you completed a phone or online survey after talking with someone in customer service or placing an online order. It gets frustrating when the questions go on and on, and you come to regret agreeing to take the survey. You just want to get through with it in order to get whatever they’re offering, and so your responses aren't all that valid. The harder and more probing the questions, according to the UK authors, the more likely it is that respondents will give those “satisficing” responses not just to get them out of the way, but also because they really don’t know how to answer.
The questions that the UK authors asked covered factual information such as occupation, marital status, gender, and age/life-stage groups. The more sensitive the questions — and the more subject to bias — involved ethnic identity, national identity, political identity, and family identity. Imagine how you would feel if asked about these various areas: Would you prefer answering these questions over the phone or directly with an interviewer?
The 1,870 participants in the Nandi and Platt study completed the first round of testing in 2008 and the second round approximately one year later. Experimental control was established in the second round by dividing respondents into phone-interview versus in-person-interview groups. The authors investigated the effects of question mode on the quality of responses using three criteria: the proportions of respondents who “satisficed” by providing the same response for all questions; the proportion of responses that were always the first choice; and the proportion of responses that were always the last choice. The authors also counted the number of don’t-know’s and refusals.
The study authors found that the only area in which mode of questions made a difference was political identity; in this area, the telephone respondents stated that political identity was more important to them than did the face-to-face respondents. The UK researchers interpreted this finding to suggest that the lack of in-person contact gave respondents more freedom to express their true opinions.
With the UK study in mind, along with what we know about good communication strategies, consider these 8 ways to improve your own question-asking abilities:
1. Don’t delve in too far too fast when you’re seeking sensitive information. People aren’t always willing and able to provide you with answers on a sensitive topic. Nandi and Platt’s study suggests that people vary in their responses to questions about their political identities depending on whether they’re able to see the person or not. Assuming your questions occur in a face-to-face interaction, it would seem that you’re better off not going directly for an answer until the person you’re asking feels comfortable. If you are really looking for sensitive information, you might consider establishing rapport first through direct contact and then following up later with a phone call.
2. Wait for the person to provide an answer before jumping in and answering your own question. Do you find yourself answering your own questions? Perhaps you’re trying to look like you know more than the person you’re talking to. This isn’t a good way to establish rapport, a factor regarded as important by Nandi and Platt. Butting in with a premature answer will also cut you off from finding the truth, because the other person is likely to either try to agree with you to be polite or perhaps be offended.
3. Prepare your questions ahead of time if you’re sure you’ll be asked to ask. One of the most difficult situations in any kind of interview is to be asked if you have any questions, and then to have none. Or you might be at a reception with people you don't really know, but know something about. Prepare for these situations by learning about the people you’ll be speaking to, and come up with some substantive areas for discussion ahead of time. If you’re in that “do you have any questions for us?” situation, make sure your questions touch on substantive areas, not just “Where do I park?”
4. Put your question in the form of a question. As when you answer on Jeopardy!, you need to put a question mark at the end of your questions. If you state your question instead of asking it, your conversation partner will not know how to respond. Keep things open-ended, and give the other person a chance to provide his or her point of view.
5. Back off if you think you’ve tapped a nerve. Communication is a give-and-take process, so if you ask a question that you sense might be a bit too probing, then don’t continue to press. You might, for example, inquire about the person’s family, thinking you’re showing a polite interest in the individual’s background, but if you get a response signifying that this is a painful topic, switch gears.
6. Have an open mind if the answer isn’t one you expected. You might believe that, for whatever reason, the person you’re talking to shares your views about social issues. Good interviewers don't draw preconceived conclusions. In a less formal situation, when you get a surprising answer, allow yourself to hear this alternate perspective and see what you can learn from it.
7. Use the nonverbal cues available to you before, during, and after you’ve asked the question. As Nandi and Platt found, people are more likely to give a truthful answer about sensitive topics if they can’t see the face of the person asking the question. In practical terms, this means that when you are in a face-to-face situation, you need to be cued in to whether the individual feels comfortable with your questions, trusts you, and is willing to engage in a conversation involving some self-disclosure.
8. Don’t ask too many questions or too many that are too hard. To avoid “satisficing,” give the person you’re interviewing a little time to breathe in between your inquiries. If your questions are too hard, and you don’t feel you’re getting good answers, try lowering the difficulty level to give the other person a chance to catch up with the direction of the conversation.
Question-asking is so basic to our everyday life that you may not give it particular thought until you find yourself stumped or feel that you’ve asked the wrong thing. These 8 tips will allow you to have conversations with everyone from your boss to the person you bump into on a bus. Recognizing that there’s a skill, but a learnable one, will help you make those conversations more fulfilling and informative.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2017
Nandi, A., & Platt, L. (2017). Are there differences in responses to social identity questions in face-to-face versus telephone interviews? Results of an experiment on a longitudinal survey. International Journal of Social Research Methodology: Theory & Practice, 20(2), 151-166. doi:10.1080/13645579.2016.1165495