I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about the costs and benefits of binary questions and binary answers when it comes to effective communication. While a simple “yes” or “no” may be the most direct way to respond to a question, it isn’t always all you need. On the other hand, when you’re looking for a simple “yes” or “no” and get a long-winded explanation instead, frustration and impatience can set in.

The trick in effectively employing the binary is knowing whether and how it will help you – whether you’re asking the question or answering it. Using the binary can work with a few subtle point of attention. We’ve outlined a couple of scenarios for you below to help decipher when to use the binary and when to make space for more information.

Yes, If

Let’s say a co-worker just asked if you’re going to a meeting about the company logo today. The expected answer is binary: yes or no. But you can’t provide that firm response because you have a little real-life uncertainty. In an effort to explain your situation, you might be tempted to say, “I have a call with a supplier just before that and it sometimes runs long and I’m not sure if I can grab lunch early today or not.” But that doesn’t really answer the question. Instead, simplify your response and be sure to provide the binary answer. Try something like, “Yes, if my supplier call doesn’t run long and I can grab lunch early.” You’ve both answered the binary and provided the context for your response. So if you don’t show up, your colleague will know why.

Tell Me More

At the other end of the spectrum is the person who has brevity down to a science. When you ask, “How was the meeting?” They respond as though that’s a binary question with the options being “good” or “bad”. However they respond, you’re left wondering why it was good or bad and what that means for your team or organization. Go ahead and follow up with an inquiry or two to get the information you’re seeking. If they tell you it was good, try a simple, “Great! Tell me more!” Other options include asking specific questions such as, “How did Jim take the bad news?” or “What were the biggest take-aways?” As you pursue more information, be sure to create a climate of curiosity rather than one of commandeering.

So often we tell people what we want them to know rather than what they want to know. Every time we engage in a conversation, it’s our job to make sure we’re understood. That means assessing what the other party can hear, what they need to know, and how best to reach them. For better or worse, great communication relies on the person trying to do the communicating.

Talk to you next week,

Amber D. Nelson


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