Political season always makes us think about the power of Evidence Questions. In the Precision Q+A framework, Evidence Questions aren’t just about analyzing data, they also help us assess credibility and weigh reasons for and against a position. A political position involves balancing pros and cons, weighing upsides and downsides, and marshalling support for a conclusion. This month we have the perfect opportunity to practice asking about evidence in order to build our credibility.
Faced with a strong argument, we can forget to ask ourselves questions such as, “What are the primary reasons in support of this position? What are the primary reasons against it?” The heat of political campaigns—no matter which side we find ourselves on—helps us see how easily we stop asking about evidence if we have made up our minds about an idea or an issue. Elections offer a great opportunity to grow our credibility by building skill at examining more than one side of an issue. So let’s look more closely at how to ask evidence questions that challenge our predetermined position.
One of the most important—and overlooked—approaches to evidence questions involves balancing multiple frames on an issue. Sometimes this is referred to as balancing the pros and cons of an idea. Sometimes we call it weighing upsides and downsides of an issue or decision. Asking ourselves to truly examine the pros and the cons of an idea in a balanced manner helps us understand it more deeply. Presenting the upsides and the downsides of an issue builds our credibility.
It’s easy to lose our balance, particularly in situations such as political campaigns or heated debates. The more entrenched we get in a position, the easier it is for us to find the “pros” and the harder to find the “cons.” To find balance, turn toward learning rather than arguing and examine pros and cons in a balanced manner.
Learning to Self-Question Our Beliefs
Political season is such a powerful teacher for Evidence Questions not only for showing us how to balance our thinking, but also to remind us to question our own beliefs — before we present our thinking to critical audiences like managers, executives, or outside stakeholders. Questioning our own beliefs is crucial to building and maintaining credibility. Even as our certainty about a belief grows, we have to ask ourselves questions such as:
- How do I really know that’s true? Have I examined the evidence thoroughly enough?
- Is there another equally likely explanation that I’m overlooking because I want this to be true?
Lest you diminish the importance of questioning your beliefs in your work, consider an embarrassing scenario at New York magazine. By not asking questions to analyze the evidence about a story, journalist Jessica Pressler ended up hurting her own credibility and the credibility of her company. Here’s what happened:
Meeting over caviar and apple juice with a 17-year-old “genius” financial trader named Mohammed Islam, Pressler gathered ideas for a story entitled “Reasons to Love New York.” She described how this whiz kid traded oil and gold futures in order to earn a rumored $72 million in fast cash. But just one day after its publication, Islam was forced to admit that he had fabricated the whole thing, including his net worth. In fact, he had never made any money on the stock market. How did a professional journalist–whose job is to ask questions–miss the mark so badly?
No one at New York magazine looked too hard at the evidence because they wanted to believe the story. In other words, they failed to self-question their beliefs. Author Pressler said: “I came to love the fact that these kids are running around the city with these big dreams. It can only happen in New York, these kids eating caviar.”
Compare this with the questions CNBC reporters asked Islam during a production meeting in advance of his appearance on “Halftime Report”:
- Where did the initial money come from?
- You’re under 18, so how could you open a brokerage account?
- What kinds of trades were you making?
Islam “could not answer” any of these precise Evidence Questions. He quickly withdrew from the show. More precise Evidence Questions used to examine her own desires for her story to be true could have saved Pressler a great deal of pain. We are all susceptible to the same risk. It’s easy to fall in love with our pet proposals or our key ideas at work and forget to ask ourselves the tough, precise questions that expose weaknesses in evidence supporting our solutions.
How to Practice
When we don’t ask ourselves why we want to believe something is true, we run the risk of damaging our credibility. When we don’t ask ourselves and others about the pros and the cons, we risk overlooking important evidence. Even if it’s too early to have data at your disposal, it’s never too early to ask: Why do I think this is true? What might be false about it? Have I analyzed the upsides and the downsides with equal rigor?
Choose a position or an idea that you believe in passionately. Start finding balance in your thinking by asking yourself, and others, questions like these:
- What are the strongest reasons to support this position?
- What are the strongest reasons to withdraw support for this position?
- What would my smartest critics say about this point of view or this idea? Why would they be right?
- What would my strongest supporters say about this view? Why would they be right?
- Why do I believe this is true?
- Why might it be false?
When you can give a strong, well-articulated answer to each of these questions, you’re ready to present your thinking to an audience who is serious about evaluating your credibility as well as the merit of your proposal. Once you can give an articulate response to these questions, you are ready to pass the credibility test.
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