Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 15, Issue 35;   September 2, 2015: That Was a Yes-or-No Question: Part II

That Was a Yes-or-No Question: Part II

by

When, in the presence of others, someone asks you "a simple yes or no" question, beware. Chances are that you're confronting a trap. Here's Part II of a set of suggestions for dealing with the yes-or-no trap.
Langston Hughes, poet and leader of the Harlem Renaissance

Langston Hughes (1902-1967), poet, social activist, novelist, playwright, and columnist, and leader of the Harlem Renaissance. On March 24, 1953, Mr. Hughes appeared before one of the Executive Sessions of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee On Investigations of the Committee on Government Operations of the first session of the Eighty-Third Congress of the United States. The hearings of this committee are perhaps more widely recognized as the McCarthy Hearings. Mr. Hughes was asked many questions by senators intent on compelling him, in effect, to admit to treason. One of the devices they used was an attack in the form of a demand for "a simple yes or no." Mr. Hughes's testimony, like that of many witnesses in these hearings, is filled with examples of politely but powerfully parrying those attacks.

I haven't found video or film Mr. Hughes's testimony, but a transcript is available. And on February 19, 2004, at Powell's City of Books, an independent bookstore in Portland, Oregon, 1986 National Book Award winner Barry Lopez gave a talk about his book, Vintage Lopez. In that talk, which was recorded by C-SPAN, Mr. Lopez reads from Mr. Hughes's 1953 testimony. The entire talk is worth watching, but if you're pressed for time, the reading of Hughes's testimony at about 12:00.

Photo by Carl Van Vechten in 1936. Van Vechten (1880-1964) was an American writer and artistic photographer who was a patron of the Harlem Renaissance.

When someone demands a yes-or-no response to a question, and you can provide one without risk of misleading, then a yes-or-no response is appropriate. But as we noted last time, such a demand can be a trap, and complying can mislead anyone who's listening.

We need ways of evading and avoiding such traps. Here are three more suggestions.

Recognize the feeling of being trapped
Feeling trapped by questioners who demand "a simple yes or no" is a healthy emotional response. Use familiarity with that feeling to help recognize the yes-or-no trap.
Until you become practiced at dealing with the trap, take care in applying the techniques suggested below. When you notice the trap, pause. The pause is a reminder to be careful.
Respond briefly, but with a hook
This tactic is intended to meet the questioner's demand for yes-or-no. But it does more. It adds a bit that often compels the questioner to ask a more open-ended question. For example, the response could be, "I'd say, 'yes,' under certain conditions," or, "It might seem like 'Yes' would have been right, before Tuesday's events." Here the hook is the "under certain conditions" part, or the reference to Tuesday.
Questioners who choose to ignore the hook risk being seen as intending to mislead or manipulate the other listeners. Most questioners feel compelled to ask, "What conditions?" or "What about Tuesday?" That's your cue to give a more nuanced response.
Take care with compound questions
Some questions are compound: "Didn't you say X and Y?" Compound questions can be split into two independent questions: "Didn't you say X?" and "Didn't you say Y?" They're useful to questioners who believe their respondents have been inconsistent. The devious questioner might intend to trap the respondent, because the compound question is ambiguous. It could be asking whether the respondent said "X and Y," or it could be asking whether the respondent "said X" and later "said Y." The ambiguity can be significant. For example, the respondent might have said both X and Y, but not on the same occasion, or under different conditions. Or the respondent might have said X, but not said Y. In that case, the response to the joined interpretation would be No; the response to the split interpretation would be Yes and No.
When asked a Feeling trapped by questioners who
demand "a simple yes or no" is a
healthy emotional response. But
you can avoid the trap.
compound question, you can respond to both ambiguous interpretations separately, or either one. For example, you could respond, "If you mean, 'Didn't I say X and Y under the same conditions,' then no." Or you can say, "If you're asking if I said X under condition A, then Yes. If Y under condition A, then No. Only under condition B did I say Y."

So, is any of this useful? That isn't a yes-or-no question. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Holding Back: Part I  Next Issue

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenXolqXswqcxrTLzfgner@ChaczsEYdpBCQlaMuzDHoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Effective Communication at Work:

Circular reasoningBegging the Question
Begging the question is a common, usually undetected, rhetorical fallacy. It leads to unsupported conclusions and painful places we just can't live with. What can we do when it happens?
A small workgroupMastering Q and A
The question-and-answer exchanges that occur during or after presentations rarely add much to the overall effort. But how you deal with questions can be a decisive factor in how your audience evaluates you and your message.
A headline about the War of the Worlds BroadcastDeliver the Headline First
When we deliver news at work — status, events, personnel changes, whatever — we sometimes frame it in a story line format. We start at the beginning and we gradually work up to the point. That might be the right way to deliver good news, but for everything else, especially bad news, deliver the headline first, and then offer the details.
Boston in 1826Inbox Bloat Recovery
If you have more than ten days of messages in your inbox, you probably consider it to be bloated. If it's been bloated for a while, you probably want to clear it, but you've tried many times, and you can't. Here are some effective suggestions.
Fugu Rubripes, the Fugu fishEmbolalia and Stuff Like That: Part I
When we address others, we sometimes use filler — so-called automatic speech or embolalia — without thinking. Examples are "uh," "um," and "er," but there are more complex forms, too. Embolalia are usually harmless, if mildly annoying to some. But sometimes they can be damaging.

See also Effective Communication at Work and Workplace Politics for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A vizsla in a pose called the play bowComing April 26: Why Dogs Make the Best Teammates
Dogs make great teammates. It's in their constitutions. We can learn a lot from dogs about being good teammates. Available here and by RSS on April 26.
A business meetingAnd on May 3: Start the Meeting with a Check-In
Check-ins give meeting attendees a chance to express satisfaction or surface concerns about how things are going. They're a valuable aid to groups that want to stay on course, or get back on course when needed. Available here and by RSS on May 3.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenGBALqnZdLZMffyHdner@ChacPlXGavBdDknnvffIoCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

Changing How We Change: The Essence of Agility
MasteChanging How We Change: The Essence of Agilityry of the ability to adapt to unpredictable and changing circumstances is one way of understanding the success of Agile methodologies for product development. Applying the principles of Change Mastery, we can provide the analogous benefits in a larger arena. By exploring strategies and tactics for enhancing both the resilience and adaptability of projects and portfolios, we show why agile methodologies are so powerful, and how to extend them beyond product development to efforts of all kinds. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Creating High Performance Virtual Teams
Many Creating High Performance Virtual Teamspeople experience virtual teams as awkward, slow, and sometimes frustrating. Even when most team members hail from the same nation or culture, and even when they all speak the same language, geographic dispersion or the presence of employees from multiple enterprises is often enough to exclude all possibility of high performance. The problem is that we lead, manage, and support virtual teams in ways that are too much like the way we lead, manage, and support co-located teams. In this program, Rick Brenner shows you how to change your approach to leading, managing, and supporting virtual teams to achieve high performance using Simons' Four Spans model of high performance. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

The Race to the South Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers
On 14The Race to the Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough, but to organizational leaders, business analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
21st Century Business TravelAre your business trips long chains of stressful misadventures? Have you ever wondered if there's a better way to get from here to there relaxed and refreshed? First class travel is one alternative, but you can do almost as well (without the high costs) if you know the tricks of the masters of 21st-century e-enabled business travel…
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.