How to Dodge a Question

“What was your salary at your last position?”

“Are you planning on having kids?”

It happens often: we get asked a question we don’t want to answer, or that we don’t feel like we should answer.

We can also get asked questions that we legally don’t have to answer (like #2!)

In that moment, we have a few options.

We can reply honestly or lie.

We can decline to answer or give a “non-answer”…or we can deflect, artfully, with another question.

Each option comes with costs and benefits, both economic and relational.

Maintaining Trust and Likability

Saying “I don’t have to answer that” might be true…but can make you seem unlikable. Sigh.

According to this paper, deflection, answering a direct question with another question is a helpful way to maintain a relationship while avoiding a topic.

This handy table from the paper sums up what honesty, avoidance, lying, paltering (what the authors call a non-answer) and deflection can look like:

Four tips for Artful Deflection

DEFLECTION TAKES POISE, HUMOR AND STAYING ON TOPIC-ISH

1. Take a micro-pause. Some direct questions can make your blood freeze or boil, depending. Responding from that place of feeling activated isn’t likely to help you. Panic makes us freeze up. So, take a breath! Try not to audibly groan with anxiety while you do. :-)

2. Stay in the Context. Subtle evasion by asking questions works to avoid a topic…but only if the evasion question is in the same domain according to these two researchers from Harvard. If someone asks about your salary you can’t deflect by asking about vacations. That’s just too obvious!

Conversations that veer off course violate conversation theorist Paul Grice’s Maxims: Conversations are cooperative ventures. Being uncooperative makes you look…uncooperative. You have to keep hold of the thread of the conversation.

So how do you avoid a topic by staying ON topic?! That brings me to tip 3:

3. Playful Inversion. When someone asks in an interview how much you made at your last position and you reply “Does that change who’s paying for lunch?” you are staying in the topic — we’re still talking about money, in a way.

This question also leverages a bit of dry humor…it’s a bit cheeky. Humor lightens the mood and makes your deflection seem…fun.

The person who asked you the question ALSO wants to stay on topic and be helpful…so they have to grin at your response, even if your playful inversion is a bit rough around the edges. In any case, this helps you with #4:

4. Playing for time: “Do you have kids” is an honest question/response to the question “are you planning to have kids?”. It shows cooperativeness and relatedness. Maybe you actually want advice from them!?

Any deflection also buys you time to go back to step one — finding a bit of calm. Unless you KEEP taking step one, it’s hard to get and stay loose and playful in the conversation.

What have you found is a helpful way to avoid a question? When have you had to use it? When have you wished you had these skills at your fingertips?

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Daniel Stillman

Daniel Stillman

Host of theconversationfactory.com and @gothamsmith co-founder. Often riding bikes to the ocean.