Try this simple trick to turn leading questions into trust-building conversations

By: Ariana Friedlander Tuesday June 25, 2019 1 comments Tags: Ariana Friedlander

By Ariana Friedlander

Principal and Founder

Rosabella Consulting

I was recently coaching a client who was trying to figure out how to guide his employee through some work-life balance concerns. As we were talking he conceded, "I just need to ask him, 'Do you work on the weekends because you feel like you're expected to?'"

To which I responded, yes and no!friedlander-blog-photo.fixed

Yes, having a direct conversation about this concern is important. And in order for it to be a valuable conversation it is important to ask open ended questions instead of leading ones. So, no to the leading question...however I realized something as we were talking.

Leading questions are just a socially acceptable way to share our assumptions in conversation.

A leading question is a "question that prompts or encourages a desired answer." The tricky part is that often we are unaware when we are asking a leading question because there are underlying assumptions that get misconstrued as facts. We all make assumptions, something we accept as true without having any proof. 

For example, when your significant other leaves dirty dishes lying around the house. You get mad and blurt out, "Don't you care?" That's an assumption. It is an assumption based on the belief that caring = cleaning. When in your partner's mind caring = getting to work on time to earn a living and pay the bills. (I may or may not be speaking from personal experience with this example...)

The problem is when we project these assumptions onto people in conversation with leading questions, we are limiting our abilities to have a constructive dialog. There's an element of judgment and shame with a leading question that creates a sense of unease for the person answering the question.

The respondent, instead of sharing candidly, is either 1) trying to get the answer right in an effort to appease or escape the situation or 2) priming for a defense strategy because they are preparing for a fight.  

In my experience, posing a question like "Don't you care?" leads to outright battle. Sensing a threat, your primitive brain takes over either going into a fight, flight, freeze or appease response. Both parties get stuck in defending their positions.

There's a winner and a loser, which erodes trust and strains our social contracts. And the deeper issue goes unaddressed leading to further misunderstandings at best and ongoing conflicts at worse (i.e. the fight you keep having about cleaning the dishes that has escalated).

Behind every leading question is an assumption. And if you truly want to empower positive change, it's a lot more effective to be direct by testing your assumptions. In fact, Testing Assumptions is one of the steps for building TRUST based on the Neuroscience of Conversation and the work of Judith E. Glaser.

So instead of saying, "Don't you care?" you can start by saying, "When I see dirty dishes lying around the house I assume it means you don't care." 

Or instead of saying "Do you work on the weekends because you think you're expected to?" you can say, "I assume you work on the weekends because you think you're expected to. I realize I should test that assumption with you, though."

Unfortunately, there are a lot of times we don't even know we are asking a leading question until after the fact. For example, I was recently catching up with a friend who moved and I was so curious about what seemed like a sudden change. I kept pressing her to figure out if she sold her old house or was renting it out when she finally confided in me that she lost her house 9 years ago. I felt so insensitive. Here I was assuming she owned her house and asking her leading questions that brought up a painful experience for her!

In order to tell if you are asking a leading question, pause and reflect for a moment. Is there a particular answer you are hoping to hear? Are you coming from a place of openness and curiosity when asking this questions or judgment and anger? Do you think you have this situation all figured out, and if so, what gives you that impression? What if there's another explanation?

Being able to acknowledge when we are making assumptions comes from having an awareness of the stories we are making up about a person or a situation. Building such a skill is an ongoing process.

Journaling and coaching are both great methods for deepening our awareness of the stories we are making up so we may test our assumptions in conversations instead of asking leading questions. 

When we test our assumptions, we are shifting our neurochemistry and building trust. And when we mistakenly overlook testing an assumption like I did, we can still build trust by owning it and apologizing!

Ariana Friedlander

About the Author: Ariana Friedlander

Ariana Friedlander is the founder and principal of Rosabella Consulting, LLC, and has more than nine years of experience working with small businesses, nonprofits and government agencies to create strategies for successful organizational growth.


Great article! Clear and high impact, focused on a common error we all make. This is something we build awareness about in our Churchill Leadership Group Leader As Great Coach program - thank you for writing a great article to reinforce this!

- jayne jenkins