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Volume 15, Issue 34;   August 26, 2015: That Was a Yes-or-No Question: I

That Was a Yes-or-No Question: I


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

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