When you ask a question and the expected answer is either yes-or-no, that’s all you’re going to get. A yes-or-no question seeks a single acceptable answer or pair of alternatives. Linguists call this a polar question. The answer is black or white, cold or hot, positive or negative.
Compare (1) Do you drink scotch? (yes-or-no) with (2) What do you drink? (scotch, gin, vodka, wine, or sparking water). (1) Will the proposal be ready tomorrow? (yes-or-no) (2) How long will it take to finish the proposal? It will take about two hours unless we have additional revisions. Both # 2 examples are open-ended questions. The answers to #1 can only be yes-or-no. They are close-ended questions. Asking only close-ended questions limits access to information with only a yes-or-no answer. Asking open-ended questions creates the potential for the exchange of complex information.
If you are asking only yes-or-no questions, you won’t be able to learn as much about someone compared to what you would garner with open-ended questions. Contrast yes-or-no questions with Wh-question words (what, where, when, why, how) which reveal what someone is actually thinking, feeling, planning, and wanting. Posing open-ended questions using Wh-questions words invites rapport and relationship building with individuals and across teams.
As a service provider, Wh-questions will sound like:
What service features are important to you?
Where are the markets you want our services to reach?
When can we meet to discuss our service plan with you?
Why do you prefer this service system to others ?
How will services be provided?
Within our globalized world, where individuals communicate across cultures, it’s important to consider that some cultures are uncomfortable answering directly with a no response. In fact, sometimes yes may actually be a disguise when the real meaning is no. Posing only yes-or-no questions can cause discomfort and miscommunication as pointed out by Erin Meyer in December’s Harvard Business Review article on How to Negotiate Across Cultures.
Meyer uses the example of the Danish company and Indonesian supplier. The Danish company wanted reassurance that a deadline would be met and asked directly if it was possible to meet a certain deadline. The Indonesian company, not wanting to be rude and say no, replied yes in a face-to-face meeting. Later in a less direct way through email, the Danish company was informed that the deadline could not be met.
In this case, a less direct Wh-question word might have revealed information about time and delivery concerns before a business commitment had been made. Wh-question words, such as How long will it take for the supplies to arrive? or How do supplies pass through shipment checkpoints? have the potential to elicit detailed information that can play a role in judging risks.
Meyer also points out that some cultures are not comfortable with polar questions where they have to answer yes-or-no. Yet still other cultures when posed with the same question will answer no as a knee jerk reaction to a polar question even when they may be inclined to answer yes.
Avoid yes or no questions
Avoiding all yes-or-no questions may seem like a drastic axiom to stick by. It also may not be necessary or practical. Perhaps the best rule of thumb: complex topics seek complex answers.
Consider the limits of yes-or-no questions on the exchange of information. A polar question or yes-or-no question divides us into camps with little room for the nuances of communication. Without posing Wh-questions, more elaborate information cannot be revealed. Information that can move beyond simple answers and impact decision-making.
Moreover because yes-or-no questions can seem confrontational and rude in certain cultures or situations, using Wh-question words are preferable in developing rapport and relationships. Learn to engage with individuals by asking open-ended questions to promote the reciprocity of information and ideas. Whether in business or social negotiation, encourage communication with open-ended questions and don’t rely on just yes-or-no questions.