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.
Is 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
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More articles on Effective Communication at Work:
- Can You Hear Me Now?
- Not feeling heard can feel like an attack, even when there was no attack, and then conversation can
quickly turn to war. Here are some tips for hearing your conversation partner and for conveying the
message that you actually did hear.
- Irrational Self-Interest
- When we try to influence others, especially large groups or entire companies, we sometimes create packages
of incentives and disincentives that are intended to affect behavior. These strategies usually assume
that people make choices on rational grounds. Is this assumption valid?
- When You Aren't Supposed to Say: I
- Most of us have information that's "company confidential," or possibly even more sensitive
than that. When we encounter individuals who try to extract that information, we're better able to protect
it if we know their techniques.
- If Only I Had Known: I
- Have you ever regretted saying something that you wouldn't have said if only you had known just one
more little fact? Yeah, me too. We all have. Here are some tips for dealing with this sticky situation.
- Anticipate Counter-Communication
- Effective communication enables two parties to collaborate. Counter-communication is information provided
by a third party that contradicts the basis of agreements or undermines that collaboration.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming June 27: Interrupting Others in Meetings Safely: I
- In meetings we sometimes feel the need to interrupt others to offer a view or information, or to suggest adjusting the process. But such interruptions carry risk of offense. How can we interrupt others safely? Available here and by RSS on June 27.
- And on July 4: Interrupting Others in Meetings Safely: II
- When we feel the need to interrupt someone who's speaking in a meeting, to offer a view or information, we would do well to consider (and mitigate) the risk of giving offense. Here are some techniques for interrupting the speaker in situations not addressed by the meeting's formal process. Available here and by RSS on July 4.
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- The Race to the South Pole: The Power of Agile Development
- On 14 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. Lessons abound. Among the more important
lessons are those that demonstrate the power of the agile approach to project management and product
development. Read more about this program. Here's
a date for this program:
- Ohio National Insurance, 1 Financial Way, Blue Ash, OH: July
Monthly Meeting, Cincinnati
chapter of the International Institute of Business Analysis. Register now.
- Ohio National Insurance, 1 Financial Way, Blue Ash, OH: July 17, Monthly Meeting, Cincinnati chapter of the International Institute of Business Analysis. Register now.
- 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.