Faulty communication in a relationship can lead to a conflict and a breakdown quickly. There are certain patterns of communication that can create toxicity and do damage in a relationship. One question or comment can even have significant implications. An example is asking loaded, or trick questions. Loaded questions contain assumptions that are implicit in the design of the question. They are presented in a way that a direct answer requires the responder to accept the content in the question. For example, “are you still cheating on your wife?” assumes that one was cheating on their wife previously. “How often do you drink alcohol” makes the assumption that one does drink alcohol at least occasionally. If one says yes, they are agreeing to the assumption. If they say no, it can also seem as though they are agreeing with the initial assumption.
Loaded questions can also have a neutral tone, as they are not always reflective of a dysfunctional pattern. For example, “which game do you want to watch tonight?” This question assumes that one is interested in watching a game in the first place, yet it is not likely to be intended as a trick question to corner the responder.
These types of questions can often be used to “bait” someone into giving the wrong answer. Asking loaded questions can be intentionally manipulative and designed to confuse the audience. The simplistic nature of these questions can be misleading, yet in a subtle way. Responders can be tricked into accepting something that is not necessarily clear in the question as being true. Asking loaded questions is not generally meant to foster inquiry or gain understanding. It is often presented in a manner that is sideways or intended to change one’s thinking. It can be a negative way to “get someone to admit or agree” to something that is not real obvious. It is often asked with an undertone of challenge, distrust, or judgment. Being asked a loaded question can lead to confusion at the least, and more likely, defensiveness. “Do you still care for me?” may seem like an innocent question. However, implicit in the message is that the responder is being questioned about whether they ever did care for the other person. It can be interpreted as an accusation.
Most of us make errors in communication that can do temporary damage. We make mistakes in how we share our feelings in relationships. However, if you find yourself in a relationship with someone who consistently demonstrates these patterns, be wary. Being put in a position of responding to loaded questions over time can lead to dysfunctional patterns and can do more damage than one may realize. It represents a pattern of trying to trap or attack the other person, which will breakdown trust. Generally speaking, there is no good or right answer to a loaded question, especially if it has a negative tone. By answering, one is signing to agree with the question’s assumption.
To ensure healthy communication, assure that the other person agrees with your assumptions before you comment or question. It can be useful to separate questions into a series of statements to clarify to ensure understanding. If you are faced with loaded questions that feel manipulative, you do not need to comply with a response. Rather, consider calling it out as a loaded question, ask for a re-frame, or address the assumption rather than the question.
Raise caution or and use discernment if you experiencing such patterns of communication in a relationship. It can create confusion and can fuel negative emotion. If you recognize these patterns of communication, consider seeking help to re-establish boundaries and to reinforce healthy ways to respond.
Karen Doll has been a Licensed Psychologist in the Twin Cities for 20 years, working in organizational consulting. She leverages her education in Clinical Psychology with her leadership assessment expertise in her practice. She is an executive coach focusing on helping people maximize their potential.