Question Traps are Just Around the Cubicle What every leader needs to know about trap questions

By Tom Davidson

When Fox News’ Megyn Kelly asked Jeb Bush on May 11, “Knowing what we know now, would you have authorized the invasion (of Iraq)?” she made news, because Bush had anticipated a different question and answered that one, setting off a small firestorm. When he then back peddled to answer the one he was asked, he set off a new one and fell for the oldest media trick in the book, posing what appears to be a straightforward question but what is actually a trap question.

As a new manager and everyday leader, you can expect to be on the hot seat on a day-to-day basis, so you’d better know something about the snares and pitfalls waiting for you just around the cubicle. If it can happen to an experienced politician, it can happen to you.

What’s a trap question?
Reporters and employees don’t only want to get the news, they often like to make the news, and every time a leader steps up to their job as spokesperson and takes questions, they become a target for all the fun.

As the term implies, trap questions are inquiries wrought with peril – for the recipient. It doesn’t matter whether the questioner has innocent or deceitful intentions. What matters is your ability to recognize the trap and still answer the better version of the question with respect and deft.

Here are the trap questions you need to watch out for:
A or B Questions. This type of question boxes in the leader to one of two options when you have many more choices than those implied. Example: “How will you compensate us for our time, with double overtime or comp time?” Don’t fall for the trap. If one of those options is not correct or not your choice, give the right answer instead of picking one of theirs (e.g. “You’ll be compensated as the policy states, which is with overtime pay”.)

Leading Questions. As the name suggests, these trap questions lead the target in a certain direction. Familiar in television and movie courtroom scenes (e.g., “Objection you’re honor! Leading the witness!”), managers need to be aware of the trap and go where they choose, not where they’re led. Example: “Will you be sending us home early today because of the weather?”

Words-in-Your-Mouth Questions. Don’t be surprised if your questioner uses exactly the same words that they would like for you to repeat. This is especially true for reporters whose questions will almost never be part of the printed or recorded answer. In most cases, the only thing people will hear is what came out of your mouth. Example: “So, you’re saying that profit is more important than the environment.” “I’m not saying that profit is more important than the environment, I’m saying that….” Start your answer with, “I’m saying that…” and leave out the incendiary words that were put there for you to repeat.

False-Premise Questions. These subtle trap questions are built on a false supposition on the part of the questioner and therefore make it very difficult to answer without at least tacitly agreeing to their premise. Example: “What will you do to change the unfair practice of dis-allowing cell phone use at work?” This question is both a false-premise (that disallowing cell phone use is “unfair”) and a leading question (that the practice will be changed). Without being argumentative, correct the false premise while answering the question (e.g., “I believe the policy is fair to all concerned because…, and here is what we are doing and why.”)

Hypothetical Questions. Perhaps the most endemic trap question is the hypothetical variety. These usually take the form of looking into the future, such as in this case: “What will you do if employees don’t like the change in benefits?” Some hypothetical questions look into the past, as Ms. Kelly’s did. In both cases, the question target is being asked to say what they might do or might have done, but there are far too many variables in any decisions to put yourself in a box about what you might or might not do or might or might not have done.

What to do about question traps

  1. Recognize the trap question and assume positive intent on the part of the questioner, even if you have reason to think you’re being set up. Your mindset as a leader will drive your answer and behaviors, and your non-verbal cues may be as important as what you say.
  2. Choose the answer that is right for you and the situation, and then provide that answer. An easy phrase to remember for starting your answer, no matter what the trap question, is the following: “Here’s my answer to that….”
  3. Never make up an answer if you don’t know. This is a self-inflicted trap in itself. While it’s tempting to want to appear knowledgeable and helpful, be honest when you don’t know or aren’t sure, and then promise to get back with the person or group with the answer, following through on the promise, of course.

As a leader, it’s necessary to be honest, but that’s not enough. You also have to prepared and aware when answering questions. People often want to put you and your answers in a bad light, and you can help them if you don’t know about trap questions and what to do about them.

It’s the nature of trap questions, and it’s the nature of leadership.

Share this article