The Honest Fallacy of Yes/No Questions

20 Jan
by Bridget DiCello

Questions like, “Do you understand?”  “Does that make sense?” and “Will you do that for me?” elicit responses that may have the best intentions, but may not be correct.

When you delegate or assign a task or project, whether it is to a colleague or employee on your team, the final step is to test that they understand what you have described.  The best way to do that is to ask them questions to ensure they are ready to move forward, like questions about what they will do first, what they see as the main components, and conversation about timelines and project steps.

However, what many busy people do instead is explain ‘very clearly’ what needs to be done, twice if necessary, and then ask a question like:  “Does that make sense?” to which most people will respond, “Yes.”

And the problem with that is….?

  1. They may think they understand, but the journey from your head to your mouth is long enough, let alone the distance to their ears and their mind!  Things get lost along the way.
  2. They may have received too much information and need to go process, so they need to tell you “yes” so you let them go and start working on it.
  3. They know what they will do, whether or not it is exactly what you have asked.

And these things are usually done with the best of intentions.

But, that is the problem with “yes/no” questions.  A “Yes,” like the nod of a head, tells you very little.  People think, process and begin to act based on what they are thinking.  People do the most thinking when they are talking, not when you are.  They way to get them talking about the subject at hand is to ask effective questions.  And the worst question, even for a two-year old is, “Repeat back to me what I just told you.”

So, how do we ask better questions?  First, you must be more curious than you are rushed.

Then, ask questions that force the person to process the information, like:

  • How do you see yourself going about this project/task?
  • What will you do first?
  • How will you determine the first step?
  • What will be the most difficult part?
  • What are you most concerned about?
  • What is a question you have right now?

All this must take into account the fact that there are analytic thinkers in our organizations who need some time to process the information in order to figure out the first step.  In these cases, the conversation does not end with, “Do you understand?” but instead with, “Take 24 hours to think through what we’ve talked about, and let’s get together tomorrow at 10am to discuss your first steps, and so I can answer any questions that have come up since then.”

Yes-No Questions will rarely get you the true picture, despite how honest your team is trying to be!

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