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Genuine Question or Disguised Judgment?–Take this simple test to find out

Genuine Question or Disguised Judgment? 

Asking genuine curious questions is a powerful tool to improve listening, get through road blocks in difficult conversations, and gain compassionate understanding of another person’s perspective. But even when you’re trying to be authentic and genuine, you might fall into the trap of asking rhetorical questions. They are not real questions (even if they look like it) but disguised judgments. How can you be sure your questions are helpful?

What is your true purpose?

Fundamentally, it depends on your true purpose. No matter how much you use the “right” words or phrases, if you’re feeling “judgy”, it will come across in your tone or body language even if not in the words themselves. And questions with underlying judgments won’t help the situation.

The “You Idiot” test

I recently learned about a great self-administered test from Roger Schwarz and Associates called the “you idiot” test. It is simple and requires no special equipment. You first reflect privately on the question you want to ask someone. If you can add “you idiot” at the end, and not change the meaning, it is not a helpful question but a judgment! If you like, Roger Schwarz invites you to substitute the words, you slacker, you jerk, instead.

Here is one example (all the details changed but I actually did ask this question):

So, why did you throw the trashcan at your co-worker? Can you add “you idiot” to this without changing the meaning? Yes, indeed. So then ask yourself, what would be a better question?Example: So, you were obviously very upset. What happened or was said that led up to this?

Adding “you idiot” in this case does not feel like as good a fit. Instead, it is a more genuine question to further understanding. And then you can listen to their grief, anger, emotional triggers with compassion and discuss what more effective responses the person could have had instead and how they can deal with the consequences and make amends

This test is optional but helpful

Of course, you don’t need to use this test to ask effective, genuine questions that help communication.  But since we humans are creatures of judgment, if we are not very conscious and intentional, we can fall into the rhetorical question trap. Even when you begin to change your questions, you are bound to make mistakes and not always get it right. Nonetheless, quietly using the test can save you from making a difficult conversation worse and lead to a healing conversation instead.

Lorraine Segal has helped over 2000 leaders and others in organizations and corporations communicate more clearly, transform conflicts, and let go of resentments. The goal: to create a more harmonious and productive workplace.  Through her business, Conflict Remedy, Lorraine creates customized training and coaching programs for non-profit organizations, corporations, and government agencies and Sonoma State University. She was recently named one of the top 15 coaches in Santa Rosa by Influence Digest. She is a contributing author to the book, Stand Up, Speak Out Against Workplace Bullying. Her latest project, a memoir called: Angels and Earthwormsan unexpected journey to love, joy, and miracles, is about her transformation from miserable self-doubt to self-acceptance, true love, spiritual awareness, and right livelihood. Find out more about the memoir here.Contact Lorraine through ConflictRemedy to request a free consultation for you and your organization or to sign up for her conflict remedy newsletter and blog.


Lorraine Segal

After surviving the 50's and 60's, as well as twenty years in toxic academia as a tenured professor, Lorraine Segal was inspired to started her own business, Conflict Remedy (, happily teaching, coaching, blogging and consulting around workplace conflict transformation. She is addicted to reading novels and enjoys walking and… MORE >

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