Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 15, Issue 34;   August 26, 2015:

That Was a Yes-or-No Question: I

by

In tense situations, one person might question another. As the respondent replies, the questioner interjects, "That was a yes-or-no question." The intent is to trap the respondent. How does this work, and how can the respondent escape the trap?

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 organization
because 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.

We'll continue next time with more insights and responses for yes-or-no questions.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: That Was a Yes-or-No Question: II  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? rbrenEMudcCzvnDHFfOEmner@ChacTcmtXTCJBjZfSFjIoCanyon.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:

Thank You!Appreciations
When we take time to express to others our appreciation for what they do for us, a magical thing happens.
Secretary Tom Ridge, President George W. Bush, and Administrator Michael BrownWhen Stress Strikes
Most of what we know about person-to-person communication applies when levels of stress are low. But when stress is high, as it is in emergencies, we're more likely to make mistakes. Knowing those mistakes in advance can be helpful in avoiding them.
Autumn colors on Clopper LakeEnding Conversations
At times, we need to end the current conversation. It's going nowhere, or we have something important to do, or we just don't want to deal with the other person. Here are some suggestions for ending conversations.
Word salad with font dressingVirtual Meetings: Indicators of Inattention
If you've ever led a virtual meeting, you're probably familiar with the feeling that some attendees are doing something else. Here are some indicators of inattention.
A 155 mm artillery shell is visible as it exits the barrel of an M-198 howitzer during trainingWhen 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.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A micrometer capable of measuring to |plusmn .01 mmComing July 13: What Do We Actually Know?
Precision in both writing and speech can be critical in determining the success of collaborations in the modern workplace. Precision is especially important when we distinguish between what we surmise or assume and what we actually know. Available here and by RSS on July 13.
A mallet. The same object can be either a tool or a weaponAnd on July 20: Overt Verbal Abuse at Work
Verbal abuse in the workplace involves using written or spoken language to disparage, to disadvantage, or to otherwise harm others. Perpetrators tend to favor tactics that they can subsequently deny having used to harm anyone. Available here and by RSS on July 20.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenEMudcCzvnDHFfOEmner@ChacTcmtXTCJBjZfSFjIoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, 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 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power

Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople 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.

Bullet Points: Mastery or Madness?

DecisBullet Point Madnession makers in modern organizations commonly demand briefings in the form of bullet points or a series of series of bullet points. But this form of presentation has limited value for complex decisions. We need something more. We actually need to think. Briefers who combine the bullet-point format with a variety of persuasion techniques can mislead decision makers, guiding them into making poor decisions. Read more about 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 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.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
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.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.