The Undefined Question

by on October 24th, 2013

Martha Beck in her Huffington Post article Simple Test Reveals If Someone Is Trustworthy gives an example one of her “coaching tricks” which is really little more than an undefined question. By leaving questions undefined they become a sort of a trap for the one on the hook to answer. But, let’s see it in acton:

I’m about to reveal one of my favorite life coaching tricks, which I’ve used on literally thousands of people. In the middle of a speech or coaching session, I’ll suddenly say, “Are you comfortable?” Most people look startled, squint at me as though I’m a few chocolates short of a full box, then assure me that yes, they’re comfortable.

“Really?” I’ll say, earnestly.

Yes, they insist, getting a bit annoyed, they’re totally comfortable.

Then I ask this: “So, if you were alone in your bedroom right now, would you be sitting in the position you’re in at this moment?”

It takes them all of 0.03 seconds to answer, “No.” But it takes them much longer to come up with the answer to my next question:

“Why not?”

Some people will just sit there blinking, as if I’ve asked them to explain why they didn’t invent spaghetti. It takes them much consternated thinking to come up with the answer—which is, of course, that the positions in which people sit in public settings are generally much less loose than the positions they adopt when unobserved, in a room designed for rest and relaxation.

Some may not immediately grasp the problem with the initial question. Since I deal with the press quite a bit I tend to listen for these sorts of questions. The interviewer throws out a seemingly innocuous question which is in reality vague. The one answering the question assumes a definition and responds only to find out the response is now going to be adversely used against them. In the above example the question was simple and vague:

“Are you comfortable?”

For the one being questioned, there is an immediate context which they assume into the question. They are on stage, giving a speech or performance and feel relaxed and comfortable in that setting. And with that understanding of the question they honestly respond, “Yes.”

The questioner, in this case Martha Beck, then creates a gotcha moment by interjecting a contest and definition of the question which was not there when first asked:

“So, if you were alone in your bedroom right now, would you be sitting in the position you’re in at this moment?”

This newly introduced information completely changes the question. Now it is no longer “are you comfortable in this place doing what you are doing at this moment” but rather a comparative question of “are you as comfortable in this place doing what you are doing at this moment as you would be if you were at home, in your PJs, watching T.V. from your bed?” Now that is a very different question. Now, Martha gloats at her gotcha as she writes:

Some people will just sit there blinking, as if I’ve asked them to explain why they didn’t invent spaghetti. It takes them much consternated thinking to come up with the answer

The answer is obvious, they were focused on what they were doing at the moment and are now trying to process this new information and what to do with it since it does not have any obvious bearing on their present situation. Martha then moves on to make an interesting but completely untrue accusation:

The problem is that they aren’t conscious of their own discomfort, even though it’s obvious. They lie to my face in clear daylight, believing they’re telling the truth even though they know (and I know… and they know that I know) they’re lying.

“They’re lying.” In point of fact, Martha Beck tricked them into their response. They responded honestly based on how they filled in the undefined question. Through deception (a form of lying) Martha changed the perimeters and made the question about something else entirely (a question of comparison rather than their present state of being) to which their response was then applied. In some ways, this is not very different than Nancy Pelosi standing up before the house and declaring that they must pass the healthcare bill in order to find out what is inside it. Well, there is a little difference. Those who voted to pass it knew they were voting on something which at the time of voting was undefined and passed it anyway.

ABC’s Charlie Gibson used, as Inspector Clouseau the undefined question ploy in his September 11, 2008 interview with Sarah Palin when he asked, “Do you believe in the Bush doctrine?” Palin hesitated and then asked what Gibson meant. She was looking for a definition before responding. Gibson replied, “What do you interpret it to be.” She then provided a definition to the question and responded. Gibson then provided a different definition. One which he had kept concealed and produced an on camera “gotcha” moment. The press could paint Palin up as at best uninformed and possibly an airhead.

During a conversation recently, a friend suggested that I have “Philosopher’s Syndrome.” That is, I do not like to answer undefined questions or respond to undefined terms. This plays itself out in all sorts of ways in the church and outside the church. In The Art of Undefined Language we looked a bit at how this impacts discussion about faith.

Outside the church, in the cultural arguments which are going on, homosexuals are righting hard to redefine the word “marriage” and appeal to emotion by claiming that those who oppose the imposition of their will on society are trying to deny them their Constitutional right to marry. As I point out in Gay Rites – The Winning Lie , the claim is false and based on an undefined felt belief that the right to marry equals the right to marry anyone that one wishes to marry without restriction. However, when pressed with such question as, should a 45 year old man be able to marry his 11 year old son, near revulsion comes over the face of the same-gender marriage advocate. Why? Because they too believe in restrictions on who can marry who they just want to modify the restriction to include their referred way of having sex while affirming the other currently excluded other sexual choices.

When it comes to the “Pro-Choice” debate, the undefined claim is that by opposing abortion on demand we are in some way opposed to women’s rights of self-determination. Although the claimant emotes this as somehow being true, once we define what we are talking about we discover that the appeal is to emotion not to proper definitions. Again, I wrote about this in some detail in Human Rights? Only for Some Humans. We can ask a few questions to arrive at a proper definition.

Are a woman’s hands part of her body? The obvious answer is yes.
Does she have a right to extend her hands as far as she chooses? Again, yes.
Does she have a right over her body to extend her hands as far as she chooses with quick rapidity and pummel the face of another woman who did nothing to promote such an assault? The answer to this is no. Her rights over her body terminate when they make contact with the body of another.

Although the child resides within her body, it is not a part of her body or a body part but has separate DNA, a different blood type and about ½ the time is a different gender. So the big question is, does a woman have the right to terminate the life of another based on where they live?

Defining terms and questions before attempting to answer can often completely change the course of the discussion. We may not persuade someone to change their mind, for that is an act of the will, not a function of information, but at the very least, they will have a clearly defined explanation on how we arrived at our position.

2 responses to “The Undefined Question ”

  1. Harley Simons says:

    Don

    I asked an “undefined question” recently at a bible study just the other night, it went like this: If an acquaintance told you (in a letter) they wanted you to be their special treasure, what would they think of that person? All responded that they would be skeptical or maybe even fearful of that person.

    I then changed the question by asking: what if the acquaintance was God? I went on to show them that God did say exactly that. 1 Peter 2:9

    You would be surprised at how God’s love was received.

  2. Howard says:

    I can only speak for myself. But, your title,”the undefined question”, has eluded me for most of my life. My thought process had not included what you might call “critical thinking”. So, I was tangled in many conversational webs, trying to defend something that I myself didn’t have the facts or the critically thought out arguments for. Apologists like you, have taken me from bible reader, to part time defender of the faith and those who cannot defend themselves. Your understanding of difficult concepts, topics and arguments and your ability to make me understand them in a way that lets me join the conversation is a blessing to me. Keep fighting the fight.

Leave a Reply

*