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Have You Stopped Beating Your Wife?

Years ago, I had dinner with a large group of friends at a trendy Italian restaurant downtown. We were all young professionals, single, ambitious and optimistic. The economy was doing well at the time and our entire lives were ahead of us.

I knew about half the people at the table and was introduced to an attractive young lady who happened to sit directly across from me. We struck up a conversation and I could tell right away that she was extremely intelligent. We had a lovely chat covering a myriad of topics. Things were going well, until….

Our conversation wound up on current events. We quickly discovered that we had opposing viewpoints about a particular subject. The topic was irrelevant. We simply disagreed about something with which neither one of us had any power to affect. And the debate began.

But it didn’t last long. She was like a predator on the hunt and I was an unsuspecting rabbit running for my life. I was hit with a barrage of questions for which I didn’t have a coherent answer. Her voice got louder as everyone else’s got softer. She began to ask questions so quickly that I didn’t have time to answer them. Soon everybody at the table was watching the beating in quiet disbelief.

She ended the one-sided debate with “Have you stopped beating your wife?” And, those were the last words we ever spoke to one another.

You have probably guessed by now, she was an attorney. A really good one.

“Have you stopped beating your wife” is the widely used example of a loaded or complex question. This type of question is “loaded” with a false or questionable presupposition. The presumption is that you have a wife and have beaten her. You cannot answer a loaded question directly without supporting the falsehood. Here’s how a direct answer to that question would incriminate you:

  • "Yes” implies I was beating my wife.

  • "No” implies I haven't stopped beating my wife…meaning I am still beating my wife.

That is how a loaded question is designed. You can’t win. The right way to respond to such a question is to either refuse to answer or to reject the presumption of the question. That talented young attorney was making a point when she asked me, “Have you stopped beating your wife?” That point being she was far more skilled at debate than I.

She simply and effectively used the Socratic Method of debate on me. Here’s how the University of Chicago Law School describes the Socratic Method:

“Socrates engaged in questioning of his students in an unending search for truth. He sought to get to the foundations of his students' and colleagues' views by asking continual questions until a contradiction was exposed, thus proving the fallacy of the initial assumption.”

The Socratic Method is closely associated with legal debate, which is why some have painted it with a negative connotation. In the method’s defense, The University of Chicago Law School provides this convenient caveat: “Socrates developed it… to develop critical thinking skills in students and enable them to approach the law as intellectuals.” Maybe so, but after the Peloponnesian War, Socrates was executed for “corrupting the young.”

The Socratic Method is a powerful tool of persuasion when used correctly. Unfortunately, using this approach with loaded questions in order to win an argument often means losing the hearts and minds of the very people that you are trying to convince—like my lawyer frienemy at that Italian restaurant. It is far more advantageous to use the Socratic Method with leading questions to help your audience “discover” the answer for themselves… to own it.

Persuasion is not about winning arguments, because winning an argument typically causes your opponent to further entrench their beliefs. Argument creates an environment of aggression and defensiveness, which is counterproductive to persuasion.

Rather, think of persuasion as getting someone to unearth an idea for him or herself, thereby accepting it as his or her own. This often happens in a moment of reflection after the conversation. It requires patience.

To be persuasive is to fashion an environment of openness, safety, curiosity and discovery. As Socrates said, “Wisdom begins in wonder.”


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