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 organizationbecause 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.
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More articles on Effective Communication at Work:
- When It Really Counts, Be Positive
- When we express our ideas, we can usually choose between a positive construction and a negative one.
We can advocate for one path, or against another. Even though these choices have nearly identical literal
meanings, positive constructions are safer in tense situations.
- Discussus Interruptus
- You're chairing a meeting, and to your dismay, things get out of hand. People interrupt each other so
often that nobody can complete a thought, and some people dominate the meeting. What can you do?
- Nasty Questions: I
- Some of the questions we ask each other aren't intended to elicit information from the respondent. Rather,
they're poorly disguised attacks intended to harm the respondent politically, and advance the questioner's
political agenda. Here's part one a catalog of some favorite tactics.
- Changing the Subject: II
- Sometimes, in conversation, we must change the subject, but we also do it to dominate, manipulate, or
assert power. Subject changing — and controlling its use — can be important political skills.
- Virtual Presentations
- Modern team efforts almost certainly involve teleconferences, and many teleconferences include presentations,
often augmented with video or graphics. Delivering these virtual presentations effectively requires
an approach tailored to the medium.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming June 28: Tackling Hard Problems: I
- Hard problems need not be big problems. Even when they're small, they can halt progress on any project. Here's Part I of an approach to working on hard problems by breaking them down into smaller steps. Available here and by RSS on June 28.
- And on July 5: Tackling Hard Problems: II
- In this Part II of our look at solving hard problems, we continue developing properties of the solution, and look at how we get from the beginning to the end. Available here and by RSS on July 5.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people 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. Here are some upcoming dates for this program:
- Creating High Performance Virtual Teams
- Many people experience virtual teams as awkward, slow, and sometimes
frustrating. Even when most team members hail from the same nation or culture, and even when they all
speak the same language, geographic dispersion or the presence of employees from multiple enterprises
is often enough to exclude all possibility of high performance. The problem is that we lead, manage,
and support virtual teams in ways that are too much like the way we lead, manage, and support co-located
teams. In this program, Rick Brenner shows you how to change your approach to leading, managing, and
supporting virtual teams to achieve high performance using Simons' Four Spans model of high performance.
Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date
for this program:
- Baci Grill, 134 Berlin
Road, Berlin, CT 06416: September 19,
Monthly Meeting, Southern New England Chapter of the Project Management Institute. Register now.
- Baci Grill, 134 Berlin Road, Berlin, CT 06416: September 19, Monthly Meeting, Southern New England Chapter of the Project Management Institute. Register now.
- The Race to the South Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers
- On 14 December 1911, four men led by Roald
Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen
had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished.
As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough, but to organizational leaders, business
analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound. Read
more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:
- CTCPA, 716 Brook Street,
Rocky Hill, CT 06067: September 20,
Full-day Workshop, Southern New England Chapter of the Project Management Institute. Register now.
- CTCPA, 716 Brook Street, Rocky Hill, CT 06067: September 20, Full-day Workshop, Southern New England Chapter of the Project Management Institute. Register now.