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

Last updated: August 8, 2018

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? rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.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:

In the conference roomInterviewing the Willing: Tactics
When we need information from each other, even when the source is willing, we sometimes fail to expose critical facts. Here are some tactics for eliciting information from the willing.
An actual red herringSome Truths About Lies: IV
Extended interviews provide multiple opportunities for detecting lies by people intent on deception. Here's Part IV of our little collection of lie detection techniques.
President Obama meets with leaders about job creation, December 3, 2009Naming Ideas
Participants in group discussions sometimes reference each other's contributions using the contributor's name. This risks offending the contributor or others who believe the idea is theirs. Naming ideas is less risky.
An Apple iPhoneCritical Communications
From time to time, we're responsible for sending critical communications — essential messages that the intended recipients must have. It's a heavy responsibility that can bear some risk. A strategy for managing those risks involves three messages.
An engineer attending a meeting with 14 other peopleHow Messages Get Mixed
Although most authors of mixed messages don't intend to be confusing, message mixing does happen. One of the most fascinating mixing mechanisms occurs in the mind of the recipient of the message.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Assembling an IKEA chairComing October 7: Seven More Planning Pitfalls: III
Planning teams, like all teams, are vulnerable to several patterns of interaction that can lead to counter-productive results. Two of these relevant to planners are a cognitive bias called the IKEA Effect, and a systemic bias against realistic estimates of cost and schedule. Available here and by RSS on October 7.
Crows mobbing a red-tailed hawkAnd on October 14: Power Mobbing at Work
Mobbing is a form of group bullying of an individual — the target. Power mobbing occurs when a politically powerful person orchestrates the mobbing. It's a form of bullying that is especially harmful to the target and the organization. Available here and by RSS on October 14.

Coaching services

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