The Art of Asking Questions

I found myself watching and transfixed to the live judicial committee hearing on the nomination of Judge Kavanaugh.  I had missed the testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, only seeing the Kavanaugh response and while a novice to the process and inner workings of the committee, it seemed like the purpose of the committee should be to determine the truth. There were two sides to the same story so my expectation that the Senators in the room, would be asking questions to determine such truth.  And while fully aware of the party divisions, the questions that most of the Republican Senators asked, followed a similar theme to excerpts below:

Senator Hatch.
Judge, welcome, we’re happy to have you here. My friend from — I’d just like to say a few words — my friend from Arizona emphasized yesterday that we have before us today two human beings, Dr. Ford and Judge Kavanaugh. They deserve — each of you deserves to be treated fairly and respectfully.
We tried to do that with Dr. Ford earlier and I think we succeeded. It’s important that we treat Judge Kavanaugh fairly now. And it remains to be seen how that’s going to work out.
Judge Kavanaugh has been a federal judge for 12 years. And he’s been a great federal judge on the second-highest court in the nation. He’s earned a reputation for fairness and decency. His clerks love him. His students he teaches in law school as well, his students love him. His colleagues love him. This man is not a monster, nor is he what has been represented here in these hearings.

Still waiting for the question (which didn’t come)

Senator Cruz
Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Judge Kavanaugh, you and your family have been treated incredibly poorly by Senate Democrats and by the media. And let me say also I think Dr. Ford and her family have been treated incredibly poorly by Senate Democrats and the media.
You have both seen your good names dragged through the mud. And this has been sadly one of the most shameful chapters in the history of the United States Senate. Let me say to you and your family, thank you for a lifetime of public service.
I will say watching your mother’s pained face has been heart-wrenching as she’s seen her son’s character dragged through the mud after not only your lifetime of public service but her lifetime of public service as well.
And I know as a father, there’s been nothing more painful to you then talking to your daughters and explaining these attacks that the media is airing. I also believe though that the American people are fair minded people, that the American people can set aside the partisan warfare of Washington and look to substance and facts. And that is the charge of this committee.

The remaining 4 of the allocated 5 minutes were more of the same from Ted Cruz.

While this example is far more important than the projects The Interpreters work on and the subject matter not something to be trivialised, it made me think about how we go about asking questions and the way in which we present back the findings.

The Tough Questions Still Need To Be Asked

Behavioural questions are difficult to ask – not only are we getting people to recall and remember their past behaviours, there are some behaviours that we know people will either over and under represent (think about alcohol consumption, illegal drug use, spend on gambling activities, donations to charity).  We have techniques to overcome these; ranging from administering sensitive topics via online / anonymous sources, open ended rather than closed questions, embedding the actual behavioural question amongst other ‘threatening’ questions (e.g. did you ever, even once, do the following: commit armed robbery, steal a car, shoplift, smoke marijuana, etc).

Someone Is Lying

We also don’t necessarily trust everything that our survey or focus group participants say.  Sometimes it’s not deliberate lie; other times it’s a flat out lie.  To do this, we do our own research – it’s more than finding the outliers, it’s analysing what we know – someone drinking wine once a week needs to have purchased this alcohol from somewhere, why are you visiting a pet store if don’t have a pet, why nominate a store as your main store of choice when you can’t recall the brands they offer.  There will always be exceptions to the rule, but most times, we’re right.  In some ways it’s the FBI investigation Democrats asked for.

Results Don’t Always Go Your Way

We’re the unbiased agency – our clients come to us with their unique and specific issues / problems that they want us to address: why are sales declining, how can we improve this product, what else should we be doing, etc.  We find the answers to these questions and present them back and it’s important we don’t sugar coat what we find.  We might find that 34% of people said they were likely to buy your product but we know in reality, this is going to be significantly lower.  The thoughts of one fantastic participant in a focus group isn’t always going to be representative the wider customer base.  And sometimes the results are great or what the client wants to hear.  But it’s by us asking the difficult questions that others don’t want to, that gets us to the 100% certainty in the recommendations we make.


By Paul Dixon

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