How to Ask Difficult Questions, by Senator Carl Levin

In the workplace, you’ve got to consider your relationships and impacts on your career. A lot of people can’t afford to lose their job by being too harsh or unsubtle with questioning. Regardless of the environment, it’s best to be direct and clear. Don’t be arrogant or domineering; be firm.

I put an awful lot of time into preparing questions. We’ll spend days before a major hearing, like for JPMorgan or Enron or any of the other dozen hearings we’ve had in recent years. The point of the hearing is to gather information. I master the material, to know as much as the witness. Then I listen very carefully. You’ve got to focus on what someone is saying to determine whether they’re being responsive. That’s part of listening, but that’s also part of being determined to not allow a witness to avoid answering. I focus on words. I believe that words matter.

It’s important that you have time. Being chairman on a subcommittee is a big advantage: I can keep a hearing going as long as necessary—we can go hours. Time becomes the essence. —As told to Keenan Mayo

U.S. Senator Levin (D-Mich.) is chairman of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. 

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