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Dodging the Question

 

Techniques > Questioning > Dodging the Question

Not answering | Turning the tables | Answering another question | Lying | Handling dodgers | See also

 

When asked a question, most of us feel we are obliged to answer it truthfully, but what if we do not want to answer? Here are some of the ways that the issue may be dodged.

Not answering

When asked a question, a common social custom is that you should answer, yet in reality you are seldom obliged to answer. So the simplest approach to dodging the question is just to refuse to answer.

Silence

Perhaps the easiest way to avoid the question is to be quiet and just look back at the questioner, or maybe elsewhere. This is not always easy in practice, but when you become comfortable with it, then it is only the other person who feels discomfort.

If they ask the question again or make a stronger demand that the question is answered, you can continue the silence or use another method.

Saying no

A straightforward refusal is simply to say that you are not going to answer the question.

I'm not going to answer that.

Note that saying you do not want to answer the question may well be seen as a delay, not a refusal, and so result in them persisting.

You can also soften the blow by apologizing or giving fair reason for not answering.

I'm sorry, I'm not going to answer that.

I'm still very upset and am unable to answer that right now.

I promised Jim that I would not talk about it, so sorry, I'm not going to answer that.

Ignoring the question

A simple way of not answering is to act as if no question was asked and continuing the conversation by talking about something else.

Turning the tables

Turning the tables means exchanging roles, so you take control of the situation and act as if you are in charge, with higher authority than the other person.

Ask a question in return

The simplest way of turning the tables by asking a question in return, perhaps ignoring the question that was actually asked or asking something similar in return.

Good question. So what do you think?

Mmm. But what about the other people? What will they do?

Challenging the right to ask the question

Turn the tables by telling the person that they have no right to ask that particular question.

What right do you have to ask me that? It is private information and I will not say anything further.

Becoming the interrogator

Taking this principle further, you can start asking them all sorts of probing question, effectively grabbing control and putting them on the defensive.

I think you have a few questions to answer yourself. Where were you when it all happened? And why are you hiding behind this air of superiority?

Answering another question

A technique that many politicians use is to answer the question that would be asked to allow a desired point to be made. Robert MacNamara epitomized this when he said, 'Never answer the question that is asked of you. Answer the question that you wish had been asked.'

Answering a completely different question

The simplest approach is to act as if a question you want to be asked has been asked.

Well actually I think there's a problem with the water system, which has to be addressed now.

Explicitly changing the question

A variant on this is to explicitly change the question, telling the questioner they have asked the wrong thing and then saying what that question should be (and then answering it).

The real question is about jobs. Why is the government ignoring this? I'll tell you why...

Answering a similar question

Research has shown that you will be trusted more if you answer a similar question to the one asked, rather than one which is completely different.

Public order is certainly important, and though numbers of police is important, our research has shown that we need to concentrate our efforts in communication within schools. In particular, ...

Using transition devices

When answering a different question, it can help to move the audience's attention away from the original question by using what is called a 'transitional device'. This is a few words that are inserted before your response.

That’s a good question, and what we do need to ask is whether people really understand what is going on...

I’m glad you asked that because there's another point that needs bringing up...

Note how the transition devices here are friendly and offer praise to the questioner. This helps to make what you say more acceptable and also more difficult for them to challenge.

Lying

Another way of not answering the question is by simple lying or otherwise being less than wholly untruthful in some way.

Straight lies

The most straightforward way of lying is complete fabrication, where you make up an answer that is entirely untrue.

I have no idea what you are talking about. I have never met this person.

Bending  the truth

Straight lies can be difficult as other evidence may get you into further trouble. A more effective way is often to tell mostly the truth but then lie only in a critical part of what you are saying.

Yes I was there and did speak with her, but only to ask her for the time.

Being economical with the truth

In what has euphemistically been called 'being economical with the truth', you can be completely truthful but avoid difficulty by omitting the critical elements that would cause problems for you.

Yes, I saw her there. She was with some other people. I don't know what time she left, but I went at about eleven o'clock.

Handling dodgers

If you are asking questions and the other person is dodging them, then you have a dilemma as to whether you persist. Here are some methods you can use.

Repeat the question

The simplest method to use is simply to ask the question again. Many people, when faced with this repetition will see that you are not going to give up and will therefore answer the question properly.

This can turn into a competition where the questioner keeps repeating the question and the other person keeps avoiding. If the avoider is determined, then they can easily win, making this a possibly unsuccessful strategy.

Sorry, you have not answered the question. How much money are you prepared to invest in this?

Ask again later

Sometimes people are not ready to answer the question at the time, perhaps because they have other things on their mind. They may also refuse to answer because of contextual factors such as other people being there and the social embarrassment or status issues that answering would cause.

... (later) How much money are you prepared to invest in the business?

Rephrase the question

Sometimes the question is not understood or the words offend. In such cases, a simple approach is to ask the question using different words.  Further explanation and detail around the subject may help clarify the question.

There is an opportunity to help grow the business and get great returns by investing in it. Are you interested in this?

Change the tone

It can also help to reflect on how the question is being asked, for example with a commanding tone that causes reaction or in a weak way that offers refusal as a real option.

Would you care to join us in a new investment? To do this we would need to know how much you would be interested in investing.

Name the game

People such as politicians often play games around questioning, refusing or answering differently. A simple approach to game-players is to names the game, showing them that you can see what they are doing.

Why are you avoiding the question? Do you want to have a share in the company? This will need investment on your part, you know.

Ask about underlying issues

A softer approach is to assume that the person is unable to answer the question for some deeper reason. By taking a counselling or therapeutic position, you can empathize with their problem and try to find out more about why they are feel unable to answer the question.

Is there anything stopping you from investing at the moment? 

See also

Resisting persuasion, Lying

 

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