Imagine you were the Prime Minister of Canada, being publicly questioned about committing fraud.
How would you respond?
Circular arguments for straightforward questions
In 2020, Justin Trudeau faced this dilemma after being asked, “How much money did your family receive from the WE Charity?”
The question was in response to a conflict of interest investigation. A contract worth $912 million was awarded to the WE Charity after the organization had paid J Trudeau’s close family members to appear at its events.
Let’s take a look at the exchange that took place:
“He who asks the questions controls the conversation.”
During the exchange, Pierre Poilievre, a member of Canada’s House of Commons, asks thirteen questions. J Trudeau asks four. Two of J Trudeau’s questions are rhetorical. One is a rephrase of Poilievre’s question. One is, “Can I answer?”
Whether embroiled in a political scandal or speaking to a hostile colleague, here are some things we (and J Trudeau) can learn from this heated exchange.
Respond, never react
- Pause: Take a breath and recenter your mind.
- Assess: “Dating back to the 1970s, research suggests that people have conversations to accomplish some combination of two major goals: information exchange (learning) and impression management (liking).” Evaluate the asker’s motivation and the options available to you.
- Respond: Only after having paused and assessed, form and deliver your calculated response.
Regardless of J Trudeau’s guilt or innocence, his responses appear weak. He deflects to avoid answering the question, taking the listener on an endless loop of unrelated responses.
What would have happened if, instead, J Trudeau paused, took a breath, and told Poilievre he would not be answering that question?
Most likely, we wouldn’t be discussing the video here today. Responding with power elicits a level of respect from the listener.
In contrast, let’s look at how former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau handles difficult questions.
Measuring up in a crisis
In 1970, the Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ) kidnapped a provincial deputy premier and British diplomat. As a response, P Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act. This act limited civil liberties and made it easier for police to detain and arrest suspects. P Trudeau’s action marked the first time in Canadian history that the War Measures Act was invoked during peacetime. It was a controversial decision Trudeau was publicly questioned about:
“If you’re playing devil’s advocate, you should know the rules.”
– P Trudeau
During the interaction, the two reporters ask eight questions. P Trudeau responds with nineteen. In this seven-and-a-half-minute video, the reporters talk over each other and stumble several times. One reporter admits he did not ask his question well.
P Trudeau, in contrast, asserts his power and influence by employing the following techniques:
3 Dimensions of Questions
Another distinct difference between the two interactions is the type of questions the Trudeaus asked. J Trudeau asks One-Dimensional (1D) Questions.
1D Questions are binary and should appropriately receive a one-dimensional answer. For example, right/wrong, yes/no. These kinds of questions serve a purpose. However, more open-ended questions would have been beneficial in J Trudeau’s situation. An open-ended question would give J Trudeau more information about Poilievre’s motivations, redirect his attention, and give him more time to respond appropriately.
As for J Trudeau’s answers, he provides wrong-dimensional answers. For example, J Trudeau is asked a Two-Dimensional (2D) Question, ‘How much?’. His response is a run-on sentence that does not address the question.
A 2D Question asks for an answer within a scale or gradient. In this case, the response Poilievre demands is a number. If J Trudeau cannot provide a number, he would be better off saying, ‘I cannot answer this question’.
Providing a long-winded circular response only frustrates the interviewer and those listening. In this case, millions of Canadians.
J Trudeau’s response shows he cannot or will not answer the question and is not honest or courageous enough to admit it.
P Trudeau, in contrast, asks a variety of Three-Dimensional (3D) Questions.
3D Questions are open-ended and can be answered in infinite ways. P Trudeau’s 3D Questions of the reporters influence the dialogue and give him better control over the exchange. As P Trudeau asks 3D Questions, the interviewer stumbles into a corner after inadvertently suggesting the government should not protect anyone. P Trudeau’s questions put the reporter in the hot seat. P Trudeau can then influence the conversation, gain enough information to point to falsehoods in the reporter’s claims and position, and ultimately provide better answers.
When asked a pointed, 1D Question:
‘I’m worried about living in a town full of people with guns running around, doesn’t it worry you?’
P Trudeau responds with a clear, definitive 1D Answer, followed by an open-ended 3D Question. ‘No, it doesn’t worry me, I think it’s natural if people are being abducted they should be protected. What would you do if a federal minister was abducted?’
P Trudeau strengthens his position through decisiveness and clarity. As the reporter cannot provide a better solution, this weakens the reporter’s argument. This is the turning point in the conversation, giving P Trudeau gentle but clear dominance over the reporters.
Answering a question with a question is a great way to steer the conversation — especially if you first respond with a clear and decisive answer. Towards the end of the interview, P Trudeau is asked, ‘How far will you go with that? How far will you extend that?’
There are multiple ways to respond here, including outlining a specific plan for the future. Instead, the former Prime Minister proves he can not only make tough decisions but stand behind them in the following response:
“Just watch me.”
– P Trudeau
Next time you are facing difficult questions, ask yourself:
Which Trudeau do I want to be?
Learn more about the types of questions and how to respond to them.
Check out part 1 of Questions and the Quantum Realm here.