Do You Know Why Rhetorical Questions Are For Jerks?

That’s not a rhetorical question. Because if you hate to have a creative, productive team, you’ll surely lambast them with your rhetorical brilliance.

Do You Know Why Rhetorical Questions Are For Jerks?

Over at HBR, Roger Schwarz shares with us a telling exercise.


Glance over the following three questions and see which is genuine–that is, actually opening up the option for the person you’re talking to to contribute to the conversation–and which are rhetorical, where you’re not genuinely curious, you’re just trying to make a point to them about how impressively correct you are:

  • “You don’t really think your solution will work, do you?”
  • “If we implemented my proposal, what problems, if any, would it create in your divisions?”
  • “Why do you think I asked you to follow up yesterday?”

What’s the problem with rhetorical questions? As Schwarz observes, when you ask them, you’re not really looking for an answer–you’re just implicitly stating your own views. And, we may add, slathering a a thick frosting of shame on your team’s culture.

But they feel so good to ask!

Why do we love rhetorical questions? (See what I did there?) Because they feel good to ask, Schwarz says–they let you make some clever, quick verbal points.

But they have stifling consequences, he notes:

Rhetorical questions undermine your team’s working relationships and reduce its ability to make high-quality decisions. Rhetorical questions enable you to ask others to be accountable without being transparent about your own views, leading team members to feel insulted, defensive, or discounted. As a result, team members trust you less, withdraw from the discussion, and withhold relevant information that the team needs to make good decisions.

Why is that lack of transparency a problem, other than making us appear like reprehensible my-title-is-my-identity jerkfaces?

Because, as a high-level CTO will tell you, companies need to have the maximum velocity possible in this opaque, volatile world of ours–and anything that hampers that velocity, like shame, distrust, and withdrawal will have bottom-line consequences.


But to learn how to catch our rhetoricals before (or just after) we ask them, we should just read Schwarz’s post, shouldn’t we?

Hat tip: HBR

[Image: Flickr user Délirante Bestiole]

About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.