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Volume 15, Issue 35;   September 2, 2015: That Was a Yes-or-No Question: II

That Was a Yes-or-No Question: II

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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

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A cognitive bias called functional fixedness causes difficulty in recognizing new uses for familiar things. It also makes for difficulty in recognizing devious uses of everyday behaviors. Here's Part II of a catalog of deviousness based on functional fixedness. Available here and by RSS on July 25.

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