Boy were we had! Three of us went to a restaurant, one serving oriental food, and ending up with a rather larger bill than planned and a mountain of food going back to the kitchen. And all due to the power of the presumptive question. A presumptive question is one where you presume the answer is yes and that the respondee is asked to choose between a number of options. In this case, each of us chose a main course and then the waitress said ‘And which side will you be having with that?’ Now never mind the possibility of a language barrier, (she was Irish) we all assumed that with your main course you got a side…. so we each ordered rice, and then the table required a bowl of chips, and then a bowl of prawn crackers seemed a good idea while we waited.
First came the main courses, each neatly nested into a bowl or rice or noodles, (cute idea) then the chips, then the rice and then the prawn crackers. A carbohydrate feast! An extra twenty per cent on the bill.. and a load of food back to the kitchen! (The table could not manage all the chips either!)
Now had the question been, the dish comes with noodles would you like any other side dishes?… the restaurant would have had less takings, we would have eaten less (obesity is a major issue in that town) and fewer of the world’s resources would have gone in the bin.
But the presumptive question has its place and can be a wonderful tool. The presumptive question is one of the favourite of the lawyers. It gives information that is to be accepted as fact while at the same time, soliciting information. The presumptive question is also a favourite with sales people, assuming you are going to buy and asking a question like, ” will you be taking the blue Mercedes or the yellow Lamborghini today, sir?”
It can be wonderful with kids… “When will you be tidying your room, now or tomorrow?” It can work well with staff or colleagues “I’m really looking forward to seeing your thoughts on this, when will you be able to get me a report?” “So we’ve got three weeks to make this happen, which of those tasks would your prefer to do?”
Presumptive questions make it more difficult for the respondee to say no, since “no” is really not a proper answer to the question being asked. It works because often the question takes the person’s imagination to a place they would like to be. “Once you’re rich and successful what will you spend your time doing?” It works because most of the time we want to avoid conflict, and saying no to such a question is to challenge the questioner, and our desire to avoid pain (which is stronger than our desire for pleasure) means that we prefer to concede to the request and answer the question.
So in one sense the presumptive question can trick us into agreeing to doing something we did not plan to say yes to, but could it be useful in a business environment? “When do I start?” ” When would you envisage my next pay rise taking effect?” Could seriously damage your wealth!
Some individuals that you work with may be reluctant to commit, always cagey and dodging. This technique could get them to agree. These questions might be useful with your boss. They are useful with the indecisive. They are useful in narrowing down options. They can assist you in avoiding confrontation.
But use with care, because afterwards the person may just feel a little conned.. and in the long term over use might not lead to real dedication. And when used on you, how can you handle them? Answer a question with a question: What does accompany this main course? What would you like me to de-prioritise? What do you think the implications of this are? Could we look at who else could do this?
Answer the question with another preference: I would like to take some time to think about it. Actually I’d like to ride my bicycle more.
The art of dealing with the presumptive question successfully is identifying it in the first place. There are plenty of responses which don’t involve the equivalent of three bowls of rice, one of chips and another of prawn crackers!