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Artful dodger or fumbling truth-teller?

by on
in Office Communication,Workplace Communication

Listeners, and even questioners, often don’t notice answers that sidestep questions. It’s called “conversational blindness.”

Two Harvard researchers found that listeners don’t hear answers critically and even prefer speakers who answer the wrong question well over those who answer the right question poorly.

If you’re serious about your questions, though, you need to recognize when people dodge them.

Maybe listeners don’t object to dodges because they agree with the speaker’s agenda rather than the questioner’s. But if you’re asking the question, examine whether the answer actually makes sense or whether the speaker is trying to pull one over on you. A few tips:

• Recognize that it’s natural for people to veer off point. You can decide to go there with them, which may yield interesting and creative ideas.

• Remember your question, though, and make sure the speaker answers it. Moderator Jim Lehrer did this in the first presidential debate last year. When neither candidate gave him a straight answer, he let them talk and then said, “All right, let’s go back to my question.”

• Listening is harder than you think. Consciously process each phrase, relate it to the previous one, scan for implications, observe nonverbal communication and compare the answer to the question.

• When you’re operating in an online or televised environment, or if you’re using a flip chart or whiteboard, you can post a question continuously during the answers and summarize the answers below the questions.

— Adapted from “Decoding the Artful Sidestep,” Todd Rogers interviewed by Martha Lagace, HBS Working Knowledge, http://hbswk.hbs.edu.

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