How to Reframe Binary Questions

Written by Dave Bailey

Filed under coaching psychology

Women confused by bad questions

This article will help you reframe binary questions into adaptive ones so that you are no longer held back by the all or nothing mentality.

What do the following questions have in common?

  • Is this person experienced enough for the role?
  • Do we have the right strategy?
  • Am I a good leader?

Well, a few things. They are all common questions at a company and maybe you’ve asked yourself something similar recently. But more importantly, they are also generally perceived as binary questions.

Let’s look at what binary questions are, and why you’re better off reframing them whenever you spot one.

What is a binary question?

A binary question is a closed question with only two answers — for example, ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Hidden in the question is an implicit assumption that there are only two categories into which the subject can fall: good or bad, right or wrong, and so on.

For example, ‘Am I a good leader?’ implies there are two types of leader, good and bad — and I must be one or the other. This is why binary questions can be dangerously misleading, because reality is always more nuanced.

Binary questions reflect a fixed mindset, but there’s a simple way to transform them into adaptive questions that encourage a growth mindset.

From binary to adaptive

When you adopt a growth mindset, you’re more interested in cultivating new abilities through effort, than putting a label on something. Rather than focusing on ‘am I or aren’t I’, refocus on where you want to get to, and how much effort it will take to get there.

Here are some examples:

  • Binary: Is this person experienced enough for the role?
  • Adaptive: What can I do to help this person succeed in this role?
  • Binary: Do we have the right strategy?
  • Adaptive: What can I do to strengthen my strategy?
  • Binary: Am I a good leader?
  • Adaptive: What can I do now to get better at leading my team?

You can see how the adaptive questions assume that good is possible or even inevitable — with enough effort. For example, if you’re evaluating a candidate for a role, their fit isn’t just about their current abilities — it’s also about the effort you’re willing to put in.

False dilemmas and solution-neutral problem statements

False dilemmas, like binary questions, are statements that falsely assume a fixed number of ways to address an issue — even when other viable options exist. Examples of false dilemmas include:

  • You’re either with us or against us.
  • It’s either solution X or solution Y.

When you encounter a false dilemma, look for a solution-neutral problem statement — something that frames the underlying issue in a way that doesn’t refer to any specific solution.

  • False dilemma: It’s either learn Photoshop or learn Canva.
  • Solution-neutral problem statement: We don’t have a poster to promote next week’s event and we have limited time to design one.

Finding a solution-neutral problem statement is particularly helpful in resolving conflicts where both sides believe their solution is right. Often, each side has an insight into the problem that the other has missed. By refining the problem statement, an even more effective solution can be found.

For a deep dive on this technique, see How to Resolve a Conflict Where Both Sides Are Right.

Coaching a growth mindset

Next time a binary question or a false dilemma comes up in the team, try to transform it into an adaptive question or solution-neutral problem statement. We often underestimate how a little effort can go a long way.

And the same goes for that little voice in your head. Next time it asks you whether you’re doing a good job, remind yourself that with effort, you can improve.

Continue reading about using questions:

Originally published Sep 30, 2020, last updated Aug 19, 2021

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