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

That Was a Yes-or-No Question: 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: 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? rbrendbTtLLSVlUPPCNkAner@ChacthFxWKdRwnLylOCDoCanyon.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:

Two infants exchanging secretsSee No Evil
When teams share information among themselves, they have their best opportunity to reach peak performance. And when some information is withheld within an elite group, the team faces unique risks.
Carrot and stickIrrational 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?
Marie Antoinette, queen of France from 1774 to 1792Recognizing Hurtful Dismissiveness
"Never mind" can mean anything from "Excuse me, I'm sorry," to, "You lame idiot, it's beyond you," and more. The former is apologetic and courteous. The latter is dismissive and hurtful. We have dozens of verbal tactics for hurting each other dismissively. How can we recognize them?
William Tecumseh Sherman as a major general in May 1865On Badly Written Email
Even those who aren't great writers do occasionally write clearly, just by chance. But there are some who consistently produce unintelligible email messages. Why does this happen?
Main Reading Room of the U.S. Library of CongressMany "Stupid" Questions Aren't
Occasionally someone asks a question that causes us to think, "Now that's a stupid question." Rarely is that assessment correct. Knowing what alternatives are possible can help us respond more effectively in the moment.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

The future site of 2 World Trade Center as it appeared in 2013Coming October 5: Downscoping Under Pressure: I
When projects overrun their budgets and/or schedules, we sometimes "downscope" to save time and money. The tactic can succeed — and fail. Three common anti-patterns involve politics, the sunk cost effect, and cognitive biases that distort estimates. Available here and by RSS on October 5.
A hummingbird feeding on the nectar of a flowerAnd on October 12: Downscoping Under Pressure: II
We sometimes "downscope" projects to bring them back on budget and schedule when they're headed for overruns. Downscoping doesn't always work. Cognitive biases like the sunk cost effect and confirmation bias can distort decisions about how to downscope. Available here and by RSS on October 12.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrendbTtLLSVlUPPCNkAner@ChacthFxWKdRwnLylOCDoCanyon.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

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.