In this video clip, Director of the Office of Management and Budget Sylvia Burwell is testifying before the Senate Committee on the Budget. She is being questioned by Senator Jeff Sessions (R-Alabama) about the proposed spending for the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, at levels above those previously enacted. Those increases are offset by savings elsewhere, called "pay-fors" in Washington argot. Although this is common practice, Sen. Sessions isn't interested in that explanation. He wants the witness to say simply that the administration is proposing additional spending, without mentioning the pay-fors. That would enable him to claim that the administration is raising spending, contrary to the facts in evidence. Director Burwell uses a variety of techniques to avoid such a statement, probably because she is aware that the video of such a statement could be used by partisan news outlets, out of context, as proof that the administration is burdening taxpayers. The stakes are high. Perhaps that's why the Senator repeatedly pursues the Director, with apparent hostility and growing irritation, even employing condescension and, some would say, sexist remarks to fluster the witness.
Rarely are such tactics used so blatantly in business meetings. But Director Burwell here provides a model of aplomb, and many examples of circumventing demands for "a simple yes or no." Video excerpt by C-SPAN hosted by YouTube. View her entire testimony at C-SPAN.org.
You're in a meeting. Because you have special expertise, your role is consultative. The agenda includes an important decision about releasing a product that has some unfortunate defects. Some favor release (call them Fs), and some oppose release (call them Os). You know that your opinion will be helpful to the Os, and unhelpful to the Fs.
One of the Fs asks, "In your modeling studies, didn't you find that revenue during the first six quarters would far exceed the cost of product liability litigation?"
You begin to reply, "Well, in the first six quarters following release, …"
The questioner interrupts you. "That was a yes-or-no question."
Now, the truth is that in the first six quarters following release, your models do project revenue far greater than the cost of litigation, but you don't want to answer "Yes." Time delays between actual sales and the filing of lawsuits cause litigation costs to lag sales significantly. Another factor introducing still more lag is that consumer injury incidents happen only after the product is used for a time. Moreover, the news of the lawsuits can, over time, affect revenue for the company's other products, even though they're defect-free. And then there are the inevitable product recalls. All told, over the first five years after release, your models project severe financial difficulties for the company.
But you can't figure out how to fit all that into a yes-or-no response, especially when the right answer to the question as asked is "yes," which would be extremely misleading.
This is just an example. What can you do when someone uses the yes-or-no trap?
- Recognize the effects of restricting the response
- Restricting the response almost inevitably limits your ability to convey a true impression of the situation. Distorting your response is often the intent of the questioner, but other intentions are also possible. For example, the questioner might be relatively ignorant of the finer points of the issue, and might be reluctant to have that ignorance revealed.
- In any case, Because restricting your answers to
"Yes" or "No" generally degrades the
quality of your response, acting to
evade the restriction is usually
helpful to the organizationbecause requiring a yes-or-no response generally degrades the quality of the response, acting to evade the restriction is usually helpful to the organization.
- Call it
- One way to respond to the yes-or-no trap, before the questioner insists explicitly on a yes-or-no response, is to acknowledge the trap, and then decline politely to step into it. For example, "I understand that you want a yes or a no answer, and I could provide one, but it would be misleading to do so, and I'm sure you don't want that." Then pause.
- Few questioners would then say, "Go ahead and mislead me." When you get the "please continue," you can provide a more complete response.
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More articles on Effective Communication at Work:
- There Is No Rumor Mill
- Rumors about organizational intentions or expectations can depress productivity. Even when they're factually
false, rumors can be so powerful that they sometimes produce the results they predict. How can we manage
- Virtual Communications: I
- Participating in or managing a virtual team presents special communications challenges. Here are some
guidelines for communicating with members of virtual teams.
- Unwelcome Workplace Hugs
- Some of us are uncomfortable about workplace hugs, and some want to be selective. Sometimes hugs are
simply inappropriate. Here are some tips for dealing with unwelcome workplace hugs.
- When the Answer Isn't the Point: II
- Sometimes, when we ask questions, we're more interested in eliciting behavior from the person questioned,
rather than answers. Here's Part II of a set of techniques questioners use when the answer to the question
wasn't the point of asking.
- Columbo Tactics: I
- When the less powerful must deal with the more powerful, or the much more powerful, the less powerful
can gain important advantages by adapting the strategy and tactics of the TV detective Lt. Columbo.
Here's Part I of a collection of his tactics.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming March 27: Stone-Throwers at Meetings: II
- A stone-thrower in a meeting is someone who is determined to halt forward progress. Motives vary, from embarrassing the chair to holding the meeting hostage in exchange for advancing an agenda. What can chairs do about stone-throwers? Available here and by RSS on March 27.
- And on April 3: Career Opportunity or Career Trap: I
- When we're presented with an opportunity that seems too good to be true, as the saying goes, it probably is. Although it's easy to decline free vacations, declining career opportunities is another matter. Here's a look at indicators that a career opportunity might be a career trap. Available here and by RSS on April 3.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.