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You’ve probably heard the term ‘leading question’ used in a courtroom context, but they’re more common than you might think.

In this lesson, learn what defines a leading question, identify common characteristics, and explore examples.

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What is a Leading Question?

If you’ve ever watched a police procedural courtroom drama, you’ve probably heard one or two of the characters be accused of leading the witness. Whether you’re familiar with the term or not, you can probably imagine that the phrase has something to do with asking questions in such a way so they’ll provide a particular answer. These questions are referred to as leading questions, and they’re not just confined to a courtroom or police interrogation room.

A leading question is a question that encourages a particular desired answer, often because of the way that the question is phrased. In most cases, leading questions are carefully phrased in order to manipulate the person to provide the interviewer with a more in-depth or desirable answer.One of the common characteristics of a leading question is that it contains hints or excludes many other possible answers. For example, if you were being tested on Columbus’ arrival in the Americas, a leading question might be, ‘What year in the 15th century did Columbus arrive in the Americas?’ This is a leading question because you have been pointed in the direction of the answer (15th century) and eliminated many other possible answers (anything other than the 15th century).Though they tend to be associated with the legal system and can be considered in a negative light, leading questions are very common, and we all ask them, whether we know it or not. They can be very effective tools for interviewing, particularly in discussing a subject that the interviewee may be reluctant to open up about.

Non-Verbal Leading

Although leading questions are generally thought of in terms of verbal communication, there is much that a person can do without words to influence your response.

Indeed, when asking questions, our body language can be the leading factor in the question. For example, if you were asked whether you wanted pizza or cheeseburgers for dinner, you would probably choose whichever one sounded good to you. Now imagine that the person asking you the question smiled when he said pizza and slightly frowned when he said cheeseburgers. This leads you to believe that pizza is the desirable answer, and suggests that there is something undesirable about cheeseburgers.

Tone of voice and emphasis can also be very powerful in leading a person towards a desirable answer. Imagine you are a police officer and you’re interrogating a group of teenagers about an act of vandalism. You could simply ask them if they know how much damage was caused, or you could lead them towards the answer: ‘Do you think it was fifty or a hundred dollars? Maybe even one thousand dollars?’In the previous example, you would be directing them towards the answer by limiting the possible answers (you know it’s not ten dollars), and are even giving a subtle indication of the correct answer by emphasizing the word ‘thousand’.

Assumptions

Leading questions can be subtle or obvious, and they can be constructed in a number of different ways. Oftentimes they operate on what’s known as the assumptive principle, which is when you act like something is true in order to make people believe that it is true. A good example of the assumptive principle in a leading question would be, ‘Given the popularity of cell phones, how much longer will it be before landlines are obsolete?’ This is a leading question based on the assumptive principle because it assumes that at some point landlines will be obsolete, and it gives an indication as to why.

By phrasing the question in this particular way, you are now going to consider the question as though obsolescence is a foregone conclusion because of cell phones, leaving you to reasonably conclude that it’s only a matter of time. The reason that this works so often is because we are socially conditioned to believe that others are telling us the truth.

Opinions and Linking

Another way that we ask leading questions is by inserting our own opinion or tying the subject to some other emotion or idea.

This is what’s known as the association principle, which is when a person connects certain ideas and bases their response on the mental chain that they’ve made.Imagine you and a friend are discussing ethical business practices and he asks, ‘What do you think about Orange Computers? I heard that they use child labor in China to make their computers.’ In considering your answer, you’re now going to connect Orange Computers with child labor and are not likely to support them. In doing this, he has steered you towards his own beliefs by forcing you to associate child labor with a particular company.

Injecting your opinions can influence how a person considers and responds to a question.

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This can be made more effective if he inserts another directive, like this: ‘What do you think about Orange Computers? I heard that they use child labor in China – isn’t that awful?’ Now you are not only going to be operating on the association principle, but you also have a very good idea of what the desirable and undesirable answers are, all without him ever having to directly give you the answer.

Lesson Summary

Let’s Review:A leading question is a type of question that is intended to direct a person towards a particular answer, often by hinting at the answer or excluding other possible answers. Though they are often carefully constructed and phrased, the leading element of a question doesn’t have to be verbal, it can be conveyed through body language, tone of voice, or emphasis on a particular word.

Very often these types of questions operate on the assumptive principle, which leads the other person to assume that you’re telling the truth. They may also exploit the association principle by injecting personal opinions into the question or forcing the other person to associate the subject with some other emotion or concept.

Ways to Ask a Leading Question

Leading question definition
  • Nonverbal leading factors:
    • Body language
    • Tone of voice
    • Verbally emphasizing a specific word
  • Verbal leading methods:
    • Using the assumptive principle
    • Using the association principle

Learning Outcomes

Once you’ve finished, you should be able to:

  • Explain what a leading question is
  • Discuss some of the verbal and nonverbal techniques used to ask a leading question

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