Always answer a yes-no question with yes/no first

Here’s a somewhat controversial rule I practice: Always answer a yes-no question first with a yes/no. Never start with “it depends”.

Photo by Polina Tankilevitch from Pexels

(In case you wonder: Yes-no questions start with “do you…”, “is it…”, “are we…”, and alike.)


Because starting with a yes/no…

Let’s think in the questioner’s shoes: People who put forward a yes-no question want a confirmation, not an explanation. If an explanation is what they really wanted, they would’ve asked differently.

For example, when your colleague knocks on your door and asks, “is the team party a go?”, they want either…

  • a “yes” to go champagne-shopping before the store closes, or
  • a “no” so that everyone can remove their party hats and get back to business right away.
You gotta remove those decos. Sorry, Peter. Photo by RODNAE Productions from Pexels

If they wanted an explanation, they would’ve asked, “what do we need to get the party started?”

“What if I have more to convey?”, you ask. My answer: Expand on your idea afterwards. Offering an unary answer does not prevent you from adding details. There’s just as much flexibility as answering “it depends”.

Back to my example of the corporate party. You might want to say “it really depends on the budget”. Instead, say this:

Yes, assuming we have $10,000 of budget approved by tomorrow. Later than that, we risk having the venue booked up by our competitors.

Photo by RODNAE Productions from Pexels

Decisiveness earns you trust. I like how Connie Dieken puts it in Talk Less, Say More:

If you sound like a wimp, you’ll be treated like one.

This simple rule of starting with a yes/no makes you sound decisive. Over time, it builds up your credibility. Your speech will gain more attention, and your opinions will be treated with more respect.

Decisiveness is a widely-desired ability. As Harry Truman famously put it,

Give me a one-handed economist! All my economists say ‘on the one hand… [and then] on the other.

But what if things go wrong?

“I don’t want the extra responsibility”, I hear you say silently, “What if things go wrong and people blames my decision?”

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

My answer is two-parted. The first rule is once again to expand on your idea afterwards. Ensure that you explicitly state the assumptions you hold before your yes-no answer. For example:

“Shall we go to watch a movie tonight?”

“Sure, assuming I can finish my budget-planning work by 5PM — Those party animals at my workplace are very looking forward to it, you know.”

Secondly, as an insurance against forgetful colleagues, always prefer written communications to speaking. Leave enough evidence to prove that you’ve disclosed as much information as possible at the beginning. Tons of people have emphasized on the importance of documenting everything at work, which I’ll leave for your own research.

What if I got cut off before I can add details?

Preventing yourself from getting cut off in meetings is another huge topic to expand on. It is very critical an issue especially when you’re about to add details to your yes-no answer. Let me succinctly present some ideas:

  • Make the stop gesture and say explicitly “excuse me, I’m not finished yet”. If you’re the kind of person whose words usually go one beat later than their movements, making the gesture is usually the easier way to get your turn back.
  • Say the person’s name. Human beings are biologically tuned to respond to their names. “Excuse me, Ming. I’m not done yet” will work like a charm.
  • Make it habit to help other people get back their voice when they get cut off. Establish an image of someone who respects turns of speech, and karma will pay you back.

Decisiveness is important in conversations. For more communication rules I practice, check out this article. I hope you enjoyed this one and will find it helpful!



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