Why Yes and No Have Got to Go

Making a career change requires more than building a new social media profile and résumé that match the position you want and the industry you want to work in. It requires fine-tuning effective communication skills, particularly good questioning skills, not only to demonstrate your technical competencies and to learn key information about the company and role during your interview, but also to gather insights from your new clients, colleagues, employees and boss as that role gets underway.[bctt tweet="Fine-tuning effective #questioning skills is key to growing your career, says @reykjaviksky1"] Indeed, the questions you ask can often say more about you than the answers you give.   English writer, broadcaster and director Antony Jay, who along with Jonathan Lynn co-wrote two of the most successful British comedies of all time (Yes Minister, and Yes, Prime Minister), once said:

The uncreative mind can spot wrong answers, but it takes a very creative mind to spot wrong questions.


What is effective questioning?:

Mastering the art of effective communication begins with heightening your self-awareness. I caution participants in my workshops that throughout the session they will become acutely self-conscious as they analyze every word of every question they ask. There’s no way around it: You need to deconstruct the way you currently do something before you reconstruct a new method of doing it. I liken the experience to a first-year medical student who suddenly realizes all of the things that can go wrong with the human heart after taking a cardiopulmonary class, or a first-year law student who sees legal implications in even the most mundane daily activity after taking a torts class. Two things happen once you turn the spotlight on yourself: first, your questioning skills begin to improve; second, you can hardly believe what you once allowed to pass for a good question.[bctt tweet="Mastering the art of effective communication begins with #selfawareness, says @reykjaviksky1"]

Let’s start with the simple yes or no question. We tend to default to asking a series of yes/no’s when exploring matters of degree because, as social psychologists have found, we human beings tend to mimic one another, often unintentionally. Courtroom dramas rely on a gripping sequence of yes/no’s, and today’s top TV interviewers, who often fancy themselves as amateur prosecutors, believe along with their networks that “throwing heat” demonstrates control and results in news. The Lt. Kaffee in them wants to force Col. Nathan R. Jessup to admit that he “ordered the Code Red,” but a news network’s studio is not a courtroom.

The moment you ask a yes/no question, you only require that the person confirm or deny your topic and then they can take control from there. For insights, explore matters of degree with questions that start with what, how or why. If you’re going to ask a yes/no question, do so strategically toward the end of your question sequence where it will serve as a way to affirm what you’ve learned.[bctt tweet="The moment you ask a yes/no Q, you lose control, says @reykjaviksky1"]

Examples of effective questioning techniques:

For example, if you ask German Chancellor Angela Merkel: “Will Germany reconsider its “open-door” migrant policy after the attacks in Paris?”—you are simply asking her to confirm or deny your topic, so don’t expect a detailed analysis. Add a “how” before the start of this question and it requires a bit of thought. If you ask China’s Xi Jinping: “Has China challenged the exiting international order?”—you instantly give up control of the engagement because this question requires an exploration of a matter of degree, not a coin toss. Add a “how” before the start of the question and it becomes a very strong opening.

Similarly, if you ask Apple CEO Tim Cook: “Will Apple exceed its record net profit in the next quarter?”—you’re only asking him to confirm or deny if he thinks one number will be higher than another. Add a “how” before the start and you’ve asked a compelling and challenging question considering Apple’s amazing results in the previous quarter. If you ask Britain’s David Cameron: "Do the U.S. and Great Britain have a special relationship?”—you once again give up control. It’s better to use a comparative structure by asking: “Thinking back to when you first took office as Prime Minister, how does the current relationship between the U.S. and Great Britain compare to the one in 2010?”[bctt tweet="Add a 'how' to your #questions to garner more compelling insights -@reykjaviksky1"]

The trouble with yes or no questions:

Yes/no questions are gifts to consummate communicators who listen intently for them so that they can promote their point of view and, at times, engage in spin. John Sawatsky, head of talent development at ESPN and one of the world’s leading authorities on the journalistic interview, according to the American Journalism Review, describes the process in three steps:

  1. First the interviewer asks the yes/no question.
  2. Second, the interviewee “knocks-down” the question, usually by denying the claim made by the interviewer.
  3. Third, the interviewee takes control by “bridging over to their point of view.”

With a little analysis on your part, you can tune up your ears to hear the three-step process, in the same way someone who is learning a difficult language such as Japanese or Icelandic amplifies their hearing to detect individual words in sentences that once were unintelligible to them. I always tell participants in my workshops that after today they will never watch a TV interview the same way again. The most aggressive journalists sound as if they are in total control of their interviews, but as you turn up your sensory array, you realize that the opposite is true.

Here is an example from a past British election. The BBC’s Jeremy Paxman, who once was described by a fellow BBC reporter as looking “disdainful and contemptuous and furious with his guests because he by and large is,” interviewed Prime Minister Tony Blair before the April 2005 general election and sounded as if he’d gotten the better of the PM. However, a closer analysis reveals otherwise:

Paxman’s yes/no question:

But do you accept that there is a trust issue, and that the reason that the opposition parties can talk about wiping the smirk off your face is because you can’t any longer say: ‘Look at me, I’m a pretty straight kind of a guy?

Blair’s knock-down reply:

Well…trust is an issue, but then people are going to have to decide…

Blair’s bridge:

Are we to be trusted when we say we’ve run a strong economy and will continue to do so with low interest rates and low unemployment and low inflation. I said that we would put investment into the public services. We have. You go and look at any school and hospital. You look at this here and how it’s been transformed in the past few years. Look at the investment in the local regeneration of an inner city such as Leeds…

Mr. Blair skillfully side-stepped Mr. Paxman’s fizzing inquiry and then proceeded to offer a list of his party’s accomplishments.

I’ve often heard the argument that public officials should be grilled by the media because “it shows how they behave under pressure.” Actually, it shows their level of media training. By all means, ask questions about heavyweight issues, but do so in a way that doesn’t mistake a verbal salvo for a well-crafted question.

Here’s another example from the business media. France 24’s Markus Karlsson, who is the antithesis to Mr. Paxman, interviewed Eric Schmidt, then-executive chairman of Google, in May 2011 during an ongoing investigation by the European Commission of the company’s behavior according to EU antitrust rules:

Karlsson’s yes/no question:

Let’s start talking about the building that we’re in. You’ve got other investments coming up as well here in Europe along with a Google Academy in Germany and you’re also hiring a lot more engineers and other staff members here in Europe. Are you on a European charm offensive?

Schmidt’s knock-down reply:

Well we’ve already made a decision to invest heavily in Europe because it’s good business, not just for charm.

Schmidt’s bridge:

And indeed we announced that we were going to hire more than 1,500 people in Europe at the beginning of this year and maybe even more—we’re on track to do that and more—and to invest in local content, local culture, improving the state of dialogue about the internet, and doing it with the appropriate thought leaders and industry leaders and academic leaders in each of the countries…

Mr. Karlsson follows up with two more yes/no questions that Mr. Schmidt parries with knock-downs and bridges.

Asking yes or no questions can also cause problems in negotiations, including the give-and take associated with overseas job offers, that lead to misunderstandings and erect obstacles to an agreement. Professor Erin Meyer at INSEAD writes in the Harvard Business Review: “One of the most confounding aspects of international negotiations is that in some cultures the word ‘yes’ may be used when the real meaning is no. In other cultures ‘no’ is the most frequent knee-jerk response, but it often means “Let’s discuss further.”  Once again, your safe bet is to resist the coin toss and let questions that start with what, how or why do the work for you. Leave the yes/no’s to Lt. Kaffee.[bctt tweet="Asking yes/no Q's can cause problems in #negotiations, says @reykjaviksky1"]

How effective questioning techniques can grow your career:

Mastering highly effective questioning strategies will help you to maintain effective communication in the workplace. As a salesperson, you’re questioning skills are key to coming to understand customer pain points, while product designers can leverage good questioning to gain insights about user experiences. For professionals in any discipline, strong questioning skills important for gaining the insights you need to be high-impact in your role and impress your supervisor from the start.

Learning to ask powerful questions requires more than dedicating time to prepare your questioning strategy for each meeting and conducting an honest daily assessment of your performance. To turn your questioning skills into a true competitive advantage, you also need to muster the courage to change your initial questioning strategy in the middle of your meeting based on someone’s intriguing response and to improvise an entirely new strategy. The question is: How much do you want it?

David C. Steinberg, Ph.D. is principal at Reykjavik Sky Consulting. He teaches a course on advanced questioning skills for honors business students at Suffolk University’s Sawyer Business School.

Photo credit: Jeff Djevdet via Flickr cc