Common courtesy dictates that you should reply to questions truthfully. Unfortunately, the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth is not always an option. There are questions whose answers can cause more harm than good.
One way to address uncomfortable topics is to deflect the questions altogether. To deflect well, you want to avoid answering without seeming rude. In negotiations, deflecting difficult questions can be handy in working out a win-win solution. Here are eight ways you can use deflection for positive outcomes.
Rephrase the Question
In 2018, the world watched as Judge Brett Kavanaugh danced around questions at the Supreme Court hearings. Some of Kavanaugh’s evasion tactics included rephrasing questions. In presidential debates, it’s common for candidates to rephrase questions instead of answering as is. You too can rephrase questions in contract negotiations or at job interviews.
For example, a potential investor may ask: “How did you lose so much money in your last venture?” You may begin your response by rephrasing the question. Say: “What are the lessons I learned from losses at my last venture? First, the $50M loss taught us how a flawed support system could lead to high product recalls.”
Provide a Negative Answer
Instead of answering a question about what’s expected to happen, you may respond by saying what is NOT going to happen. In a negotiation course, salespeople will often practice how to use negative answers to highlight risks and persuade buyers.
You can use negative answers to highlight the fear of losing out. Say you’re a realtor, and a potential buyer asks, “Why should I buy the expensive home in the suburbs?” Instead of stating the benefits of buying the suburban home, you can list the pain points of not purchasing that home. A possible answer could be: “Buy the city apartment, and you will regret the high crime rates, pollution, and loud city noises.”
Answer Part of the Question
Have you ever listened to a police spokesperson responding to a press briefing about a crime? In most cases, the police want to assure the public that something is being done. At the same time, the spokesperson can’t reveal information sensitive sections.
Negotiators often use this tactic to shift focus to the merits of an offer. For instance, you may be negotiating a deal, when someone asks whether your recent losses are the reason you have lowered your prices. You could avoid the topic of losses and talk about the value that comes with your new pricing structure.
Question the Questioner
One way to transfer a problematic question from you is to bounce back the question at the questioner. For example, after a tough question, you could ask back, “How do you suggest we handle this? ” The heat is now on the questioner. Plus, how the questioner replies can provide insights into finding solutions to redeem the situation.
In communications courses, you learn to question by asking for more information. By asking for more details, you gain better clarity on the question. You also buy more time to prepare an appropriate response.
For example, let’s say a potential buyer asks why your brand charges more than competitors. You can ask which brands have similar products for a lower price. The response can prepare you to provide a more focused reply. Your reply could be “product B from competitor Z lacks the quality assurance we provide with our product A. Z then charges you for aftersales service while we don’t.”
In some communications courses, there are sessions devoted to learning how to deflect difficult questions by claiming ignorance. This way, you can gracefully shift responsibility to someone else. For example, if asked for the legal interpretation of a contract, you can defer the question to a legal team.
Attack the Question
You can skillfully attack the question without attacking the questioner. In a negotiation course, you would likely learn that skillful deflection depends on the reasons behind contesting the question. Some valid reasons include:
- The question is socially objectionable or too personal.
- The question ignores what’s important while dwelling on unimportant issues.
- The question relies on false assumptions.
- The question is based on inaccurate facts.
Answer Another Question
When facing a difficult question that you can’t ignore, you can switch to a different question. Move the audience’s attention to a similar issue without seeming evasive. Former US Secretary of State once said: “Never answer the question that is asked of you. Answer the question that you wish had been asked.”
You can start your reply by saying:
- “The real question is…”
- “That’s an excellent question, though we need to ask…”
- “I’m glad you brought this up, which brings up my next point about…”
Note that the switch to another question is respectful and friendly. You can offer praise to the questioner while addressing something close to what the questioner asks. A smooth transition makes your response more acceptable and less open to challenge.
Questions lead to a better understanding between the questioner and respondent. Yet not all questions move your negotiations forward. Difficult questions may expose classified information or delay an agreement.
To deflect a problematic question, be civil and avoid coming off as rude or dishonest. The more graceful your response, the better your chances of avoiding more challenges.