The right answer? It depends.

In communications, the answer is not always as simple as “yes” or “no.” Frequently, the right answer is, “it depends.”

Receiving this response has traditionally been a personal annoyance of mine. I perceived it as an easy way out, and an ineffective manner of answering a question. However, when looking to employ effective communication strategies when responding to tough questions on hot topics, I have learned that “it depends” can make all the difference.

What is said publicly cannot be unsaid, unheard or deleted. When an answer to a tough question is not as simple as “yes” or “no,” the following techniques should be applied to avoid falling into the trap of a potentially damaging response.

1)  Avoid being remembered for the wrong reasons. Negative words are more memorable than positive ones and should not be used, even when responding to a negatively framed question. For example, the response to “You have been called a bully. Are you a bully?” should avoid the predicted “No, I am not a bully” response, as it reiterates the negative language and also because people tend to believe the opposite in such claims. Rather, an option would be to say, “That is not the case, and let me tell you why.” An example of this is former President Richard Nixon’s inadvertently unforgettable statement of defense in response to the Watergate scandal – “I am not a crook.” Interestingly, this statement, splayed across newspaper headlines and forever embedded in Americans’ minds, was never part of the plan; Nixon broke from his prescribed speech and improvised, intending to defend himself and plead innocence but instead falling into this communication trap.

2)  Gain the trust and support of your audience. Communicate in a genuine, empathetic, confident and authoritative manner. For example, a company representative’s response to a difficult question about an emotionally-charged local issue should provide much more than a flippant “yes” or “no” response. Instead, the issue should be acknowledged, and if it requires further research, could be accompanied with a promise to look into the issue and follow up. That, along with a positively framed request to confirm the satisfaction of these proposed actions: “Would that be alright with you?” could go a long way to gaining trust.

3)  Maintain poise in challenging situations. Avoid the pressure to answer negatively framed questions with “yes” or “no”, instead considering responses such as “It’s not that simple” or “There are pros and cons”. If communicating in person, remember that body language and facial expression speak loudly, without words. Maintain a pleasant expression, stance and tone to avoid mirroring any negativity.

4)  If you can’t guarantee what they want, guarantee what you can. While a manufacturing plant may not be able to answer “yes” to the question of whether its facility is 100% emissions free, what can be offered is a commitment: “I wish I could guarantee that right now, but what I can guarantee is a promise to continuously improve emissions, working toward a goal of being 100% emissions free.”

Will this article be helpful to you? Well, that’s a tough question. Hopefully your answer is an easy “yes!”


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