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A Deadly Trap
August 30, 2012 - David Alexander
Maybe it’s because I am a journalist, but I contend that the way in which a person phrases a question matters. It is essential to the answer they wish to solicit. For me, this skill requires a great deal of sharpening. In my vocation, making assumptions is almost as dangerous and detrimental to my profession as attacking sources the way Michael Moore does: more finger-wagging than question-asking.
If I really wish to understand why, for instance, someone ran a red light, it would do me little good to phrase my question like this: “Why did you endanger innocent drivers by breaking the law?”
That construction will undoubtedly tip the subject’s defense mechanisms to high alert. If I instead asked “What happened? Didn’t you see that the light was red? Was something else going on?” it would have a fighting chance of getting a real response.
I bring this up because of a recent interaction. I recently had a doctor’s visit where, like any doctor’s visit, the doc asked me a plethora questions. I have never visited this doctor before, and his casual word choice when asking me questions about my health took me aback slightly.
Now, the answers I solicit are not nearly as important as the answers doctors require to do their jobs. Questions I will not likely ever affect anyone’s health. All the same, I still take special care to construct them deliberately. I cannot say the same for this doctor.
To be sure, this doctor was quite thorough with his questions and his exam. And I doubt his phrasing in any way impeding his ability to treat me. My intent is not to criticize this doctor or in any way imply he was somehow not doing his job. Instead, I simply wish to make the point that language matters. Syntax matters. The specific words a person chooses to use matter.
Like journalists, doctors—we hope—aim to ascertain the truth from those they question. A lot is riding on the answers. But consider the following question: “Do you abuse alcohol?”
To me, that question almost invariable prompts the subject to answer “No.” I even asked the doctor if anyone ever answers “Yes.” The problem with that question is that the word “abuse” is not only pejorative, but it is also subjective. Asking how many drinks a person has in a day or something similar would give the doctor a better chance to know how much the patient drinks.
I understand casual interaction breeds trust between doctors and their patients. It’s essential, and it is probably similar to the relationship between a journalist and a source—it requires social lubricant to work well. However, it could also lead to a lax atmosphere, which isn’t always to everyone’s benefit.
And I believe that casualness leads to sentences like this: “Of course, you don’t use any illegal drugs.”
That’s not even a question. It’s a statement that makes an assumption—quite a crucial assumption, one that could make a big difference. I fully concede that this doctor knows what he is doing. He has been a doctor for quite a long time (I asked), and he likely has instincts about patients so acute they are beyond my comprehension.
I know there are times I don’t bother asking certain questions, not only because I am certain they will not be answered, but also because I know it will be detrimental to the interview and consequently to my relationship with the source.
All that said, perhaps I am simply saying not only do words matter as much as how we choose to phrase them, but that it is a dangerous game going on our instincts when the stakes are high.
Our instincts can be mistaken. Moreover, we need to occasionally step back from our egos and not assume we know everything. We should work hard not to get ourselves caught in such traps. They invite disaster to doctors and reporters alike.
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