Meaning of the Question – Consensus?


It is assumed that when providing an answer to a question, that the respondent understands the question being asked of them. Throughout the “Forced Decision Questionnaire,” there are a few vague questions that are open to interpretation.

A non-uniform understanding of these statements among group members stood in the way of quickly forming a group consensus. 

These communication barriers were the result of difficulty in parsing the phrasing for all involved.  Some of the statements, as read, differed from our though process, especially in matters of strong personal opinion; or, as was the case with some, a lack of the general knowledge necessary to take a stance.

Members of my group had a hard time with the question “We have more to fear from a revolution from the right than a revolution from the left.”  The younger members of our group were confused as to how to define “left” and “right” in the context of the question, and why or what exactly either would have a “revolution” about.  By explaining the nature of the question, “politics,” and putting value to the left/right terms, group members were more or less able to form a decision.  The problem in this case seems to be one of familiarity with the political process.  In explaining the terms, according to my understanding, and providing my interpretation and answer to the question, I feel that the group made their choices based on my reasoning.  Unfortunately, the group could be misinformed, either from my oversight or intentional deceit.  I suppose that we place a level of trust in one another when we learn something new; other groups, with other “teachers,” likely spawned different ideologies, based on how the unfamiliar students came to understand the question.

Familiarity with an issue helps when attempting to understand a question, but sometimes there are other hindrances to effective communication.  The entire group shared a similar opinion of the statement, “Civil marriages between same-sex partners should be legalized.” But, the choice of words used made all of us determine our answers based on different understandings of the semantics of the question.  While none of us were against homosexual relationships and benefit entitlement, some of us were against the idea of traditional marriage.  A common question asked many times within the group was “Is this about civil ‘unions’ or ‘marriage’?”  Agreement could only be reached by deciding upon a common interpretation of the question.  Whether or not this adequately answered what was asked of us is uncertain, but we did reach a group consensus on one fact:  This question appeared intentionally vague, as if to provoke debate.

For the statement “Organized teacher led-prayer in public school classrooms should be allowed by law,” most in the group looked past the words of the question and statements such as “Why not, if it is a religious school?” or “What if the teacher was fine and comfortable with it?” were posited.  These and other profound statements “I would take my kids out in a heartbeat” and “No way, separation of church and state!” did not answer the question.  Strong opinions on the matter, which would ultimately help in our decision making, clouded our initial reactions to the question we had to answer.  All sides were able to understand each other’s point of view, and through discussion, respectfully agree to disagree on our interpretations, but form a group decision in answering the question.

The wording of a question or statement, when left vague, is open to many interpretations. Intentionally provocative statements, in the absence of discourse, stand in the way of effective communication.  Persons unfamiliar with certain terminologies need definition and context to understand what is asked of them.  Fortunately, we were able to discuss these statements, first in groups and later with the class.  Effective and clear communication, essential to understanding, was aided by this time and effort spent. While each group had different opinions (much like the group members, initially), a class consensus could likely be reached given appropriate time to articulate individual opinions.

(September 2008)

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