The rhetorical tactic you should steal from Brett Kavanaugh

I asked you second.
I asked you second.
Image: Reuters/Chris Wattie
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US Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh is in the hot seat. He is in the midst of his Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings, days of incessant grilling from senators on practically every major issue in American law and politics.

Is he sweating? Surely.

However, the federal judge also has a practical strategy for deflecting questions that the rest of us should really consider adopting.

Often, the responses from Donald Trump’s nominee to a query are not an answer but a question to his interlocutor. It’s a smart tactical move that generally manages to not seem rude all while avoiding getting pinned down or providing an awkward response.

Senator Patrick Leahy questioned Kavanaugh on Sept. 5 about a series of emails from 2002 that may reveal the nominee once used documents he knew were stolen from Democrats to prepare George W. Bush judicial nominees for confirmation hearings. That could provide evidence that Kavanaugh perjured himself in his own 2004 and 2006 judicial confirmation hearings.

The judge aimed to turn the tables on the senator.

“Wouldn’t that surprise you that you got an email saying that they got that from somebody spying,” Leahy asked.

“Well, is there such an email, senator?” Kavanaugh responded.

Leahy didn’t know, it turns out, and had to ask committee chairman  Chuck Grassley about the email’s existence. Meanwhile, Kavanaugh likely breathed a sigh of relief as he managed to turn a very awkward situation for himself into one that instead highlighted what Leahy didn’t know, along with Grassley’s reticence to share.

The art of deflection

Is it smart to deflect a question with another query? Don’t you know the benefits of this rhetorical tactic are numerous?

It can keep a conversation going, put the onus back on the original interlocutor, provide a response while revealing little, and can even help you seem friendly, curious, and humble.

You’re probably doing it already without even knowing it.

As linguist Geoffreey Pullum explains in the Chronicle of Higher Education, answering a question with a question isn’t rude and is quite common—it’s often done indirectly, with a responsive statement inflected at the end to indicate a question. This rhetorical tactic highlights the assumptions and inferences inherent in a question—and puts the ball back in the questioner’s hands.

“We do not always answer questions directly,” Pullum notes. “We do not always use declarative clauses to convey statements. We present each other with utterances of true (or sometimes false) statements, and with questions (sometimes rhetorical), as moves in a kind of subconscious inferencing game where the moves are aimed at capturing relevance.”

It works for journalists, too. On Aug. 30, for example, host Dan Primack on the Axios podcast Pro Rata asked his guest Felix Salmon about Bernie Sanders’s plans to go after Amazon to pay for public benefits collected by the tech company’s employees.

Why target Amazon, the host wondered. Salmon deftly turned the questioning on Primack, saying “for reasons you would know better than me, Amazon has become everyone’s favorite whipping boy.” He suggested, “Maybe you can tell me why that’s the case.” And so Primack did, sounding happy to provide his view.

This move was masterful, as it accomplished a few things in one fell swoop: It managed to make Salmon sound less like an interviewee than someone having a conversation, a smart, curious, and humble participant. Plus he didn’t have to answer the question and could listen to Primack instead.

The Socratic Method

In an essay in the August issue of The Philosopher’s Magazine—in which many questions are posed but no question marks are used—University of Edinburgh philosophy fellow Lani Watson argues that questions deserve more credit and consideration than they’ve gotten from linguists and philosophers.

One of the most popular sentiments in Western philosophy is the 5th century assertion, made by Socrates before being condemned to death, that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Socrates was willing to die to defend a life of philosophical inquiry. He developed an approach involving asking continual questions until a contradiction in logic was exposed, thus proving the fallacy of the initial assumption, now known as the Socratic Method. Yet, strangely, Socrates himself didn’t examine or seek to uncover the nature of questions, Watson notes.

She argues that all of us are much more inclined to query than we recognize, and that questions can serve many functions we don’t even notice:

We use questions for many different reasons: to find things out, to communicate, to show that we care, to express ourselves, to expose others, to debate, to inspire, to engage in small talk, sometimes just to be heard. Questions help us to achieve all these ends, and many others besides. In this sense, a question is like a tool that can be used for multiple purposes.

It should come as no surprise that journalists and lawyers are good at answering questions with more of the same. Asking the right questions and getting answers is their business, after all. But unlike reporters, lawyers actually go through three years of training in law school, many of which use the Socratic Method.

Students face relentless questioning meant to develop legal reasoning. Basically, by answering questions with questions professors develop students’ ability to query and to spot the problem in almost any logical proposition the opposition will present.

“[T]he Socratic Method places in high relief the absence of easy answers to legal problems,” explains the University of Chicago Law School. Aspiring attorneys also study a number of query variations—issue framing, cross-examination, open-ended questioning, and more.

So it’s no wonder then that Kavanaugh has a handle on questions for both response and deflection, to provide insight and avoid divulging information. “[Questions] are a subtle but indispensable tool, seamlessly weaving together our conversations, advancing our inquiries, and directing our attention to this or that,” Watson writes.

Learning to use them effectively, like Kavanaugh, could be your key to deftly managing even the most awkward of social or professional situations.