Leading Questions as a Form of Persuasion

Lawyer holding a document in courtroom
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A leading question is a type of question that implies or contains its own answer. By contrast, a neutral question is expressed in a way that doesn't suggest its own answer. Leading questions can serve as a form of persuasion. They are rhetorical in the sense that the implied answers can be an attempt to shape or determine a response. 

"While we are on about questions of rhetoric," says Philip Howard, "let us put on the record for those being interviewed on television that a leading question is not a hostile one that goes to the nub and puts one on the spot" ("A Word in Your Ear," 1983).

Though, of course, sometimes they are.

In addition to TV journalism, leading questions can be used in sales and marketing, in job interviews, and in court. In polls and surveys, a problematic question can skew the results:

"Subtle leads are questions that may not be immediately recognized as leading questions. Harris (1973) reports studies which demonstrate that the way a question is worded can influence the response. For example, asking somebody how tall a basketball player is produced greater estimates than when respondents were asked how short the player was. The average guess of those who were asked 'how tall?' was 79 inches, as opposed to 69 inches for those who were asked 'how small?' Hargie describes a study by Loftus (1975) which reported similar findings when forty people were asked about headaches. Those who were asked 'Do you get headaches frequently and, if so, how often?' reported an average of 2.2 headaches per week, whereas those who were asked 'Do you get headaches occasionally and, if so, how often?' reported only 0.7 per week. Some interviewers may deliberately use subtle leads to obtain the answers they desire, but often neither the interviewer nor respondent is aware of the extent to which the wording of the question can influence the response." (John Hayes, Interpersonal Skills at Work. Routledge, 2002)

In Court

In a courtroom, a leading question is one that tries to put words in the witness' mouth or looks for the person to echo back what the questioner asked. They don't leave room for the witness to tell the story in his or her own words. Authors Adrian Keane and Paul McKeown illustrate:

"Leading questions are usually those so framed as to suggest the answer sought. Thus it would be a leading question if counsel for the prosecution, seeking to establish an assault, were to ask the victim, 'Did X hit you in the face with his fist?' The proper course would be to ask 'Did X do anything to you' and, if the witness then gives evidence of having been hit, to ask the questions 'Where did X hit you' and 'How did X hit you?'" ("The Modern Law of Evidence," 10th ed. Oxford University Press, 2014)

Leading questions are not allowed on direct examination but are allowed on cross-examination and select other instances, such as when the witness is labeled as a hostile one. 

In Sales

Author Michael Lovaglia explains how salespeople use leading questions to gauge customers, illustrating with a furniture store salesperson: 

"Buying a roomful of furniture is a major purchase, a big decision....The salesperson, waiting impatiently, wants to hurry the process along. What can she do? She probably wants to say, 'So buy it already. It's just a sofa.' But that would not help. Instead, she asks a leading question: 'How soon would you need your furniture delivered?' The customer might answer 'Right away' or "Not for a few months, until we move into our new house.' Either answer serves the salesperson's purpose. The question assumes that the customer will need the store's delivery service, though that is true only after the customer buys the furniture. By answering the question, the customer implies that she will go ahead with the purchase. The question helps push her into a decision that she had been uncertain about until she answered it." ("Knowing People: The Personal Use of Social Psychology." Rowman & Littlefield, 2007)