The Art of Questioning to Ensure Deposition Success
Questioning a witness is definitely an art form. There is a fine line between getting the answers you want and getting bombarded with confusing and lengthy ramblings. When it comes to a hearing or deposition, you want your witnesses’ answers to be straightforward and to the point. However, if you ask an unclear question, how can you expect a clear answer?
It takes a special kind of questioning skill in order to get the precise answers you want, no more and no less. Unfortunately—as many court reporters can attest—many attorneys lack this skill. Instead of being direct and concise, they embellish and phrase questions awkwardly, approaches that confuse witnesses and misdirect their responses.
This is precisely the reason why you not only need to be mindful of your own questioning techniques, but also prepare your witness for poorly constructed questions from the opposing counsel.
Questions You Shouldn’t Ask to Get the Answers You Need
Examples of common questioning mistakes that can hurt your case include:
- Asking open-ended questions. Although opposing counsel may try to elicit damaging admissions from your witness with open-ended or vague questions, you need to tighten up your questioning to produce concise answers. Inquiries like, “State everything you’ve eaten in the past month,” aren’t practical, as it’s impossible to remember that much detail. Avoid using words like “all,” “everything,” “everyone,” and other universal descriptors, and counsel your witness to counter these types of questions with, “I’ll answer to the best of my ability.” This will allow you to address the topic during cross for clarification.
- Combining multiple questions or statements into one. Bundling several questions into one—called compound and summary questioning—often is both confusing and deceptive. An affirmative answer to one part of the question could be seen as an affirmative to all parts. For example, “Did you take 495 when you drove the victim home?” The first question is, “Did you take the highway?” The second is, “Did you drive the victim home?” A single affirmative answer could be confusing as to which part of the question was being answered. Likewise, summarizing a statement into a question, such as “So you’re saying you didn’t drive the victim home, or did I misunderstand you?” causes just as much confusion. A “yes” answer (as in, “Yes, I’m saying I didn’t take her home”), may seem like a “Yes” to the misunderstanding. In these situations, it’s important that you teach your witness to separate out the questions and answer accordingly. Coach him or her to listen to the entire question carefully before answering. It’s also helpful to answer in full sentences (“Yes, I think you misunderstood me.”)
- Questioning in absolute terms. Words such as always, never, all, only, every, and must should always be avoided, as they don’t leave room for doubt. They are either 100% correct or 100% wrong. When you begin questions with “Did you always…” or “Haven’t you ever…” you’re limiting your witness’s options. While there’s nothing wrong with being absolutely sure of an answer, you need to also be 100% sure that your client understands exactly what he’s agreeing to when he answers. An affirmative answer to “Do you always drive on 495?” means that you never drive on any other street. Make sure your witness knows to clarify absolute statements before answering.
In Your Opinion…
Do any of these interrogative statements seem familiar? How often have you heard these mistakes during a case? Do you think they’re as damaging as they appear?
Let us know your thoughts about how you develop your questioning strategy by leaving a comment to this page. For more information on how you can strengthen your depositions, feel free to browse our site. We’re also happy to talk to you directly about any questions or concerns you may have. Simply call us at (877) 837-0077 or come see us at our Alexandria office today.