If you watched the presidential debates, you may have come to the conclusion that answering questions is optional. If you don’t want to provide an answer, simply insert your own topic and carry on.
The right strategy to do that without sounding like a politician, says Stan Steinreich, president and CEO of Steinreich Communications, a New York City-based public relations firm that specializes in crisis management, “is not to dodge, but rather to satisfy the questioner.”
From politely declining, to giving information you are willing to share, here are nine ways to address a question you don’t want to answer.
People are not always exact or clear about their language, and it’s easy to assume what you think they’re asking, says Jay Sullivan, author of Simply Said: Communicating Better At Work And Beyond.
“The first thing to do is clarify the question,” he says. “You don’t want to dance around an answer and then have the person say, ‘No, that’s not what I’m asking. I’m asking something different or simpler.’ Make sure you’re getting the question right,” Sullivan advises.
Steinreich says this strategy mimics what most of us learned in grade school about inserting portions of the question in our answers, but adds a caution. “This strategy is treacherous when you are asked a negative question,” he says, “One of the most important things to remember is to never repeat the negative language of a question.”
If you’re asked a difficult question, give yourself a few minutes to determine how you want to respond, says Sullivan. “Take thinking time,” he says. “You’ll notice that when the presidential candidates don’t answer the question they’ll repeat or rephrase the question as a lead in. If they do it well, the stall gives an opportunity to think of ways to reposition the information.”
If you don’t want to answer the entire question, find a part that you can address, says Sullivan.
“You can say, ‘I appreciate that this is of interest, right now. Let’s focus on this part,'” he says. “Briefly answering part of the question may be enough to assuage and satisfy them.”
Another technique is to claim you do not have sufficient information to responsibly or intelligently provide an answer. Buy yourself some time by saying, “That is an important question and I want to make sure I give you the best and most complete answer I can. I will need to get back to you in (time frame),” says Nick Kalm, founder and president of Reputation Partners, a Chicago-based strategic communications firm.
“By the time you circle back to the questioner, you can pick and choose the aspects of their question that you want to address,” he says.
There are three ways to communicate, explains Sullivan: talk about yourself, talk about your content, or talk about the audience. “Almost everybody talks about themselves or the content, but that’s not how you connect with people,” he says.
The difference between giving a good answer and a better answer could simply be your use of pronouns, says Sullivan. “Focus on other people,” he says. “You can say, ‘It’s interesting that you think that,’ for example. ‘Why is this question of interest to you?’ Changing ‘I’ to ‘you’ can take the focus off of you.”
You can also resolve the situation by diverting to a different topic, says Eldonna Lewis-Fernandez, author of Think Like a Negotiator: 50 Ways to Create Win-Win Results by Understanding the Pitfalls to Avoid. “Say, ‘What I think you really want to know is…and this is how we are handling that,'” she says.
Kalm says this technique is called “bridging.” “While this is most useful in media interviews, it can be used in almost any setting,” he says. “Bridging involves acknowledging, not ignoring, the question with a phrase such as ‘That’s an interesting question, but I’d like to point out…’ or ‘That’s not quite right. The fact is …’ and then moving on to one of your key messages.”
Tough questions tend to be emotional because the person is frustrated or anxious, often when something takes too long or costs too much.
“Give the other person control over the conversation,” Sullivan advises. “You can say, ‘I understand you’re frustrated. Would it be helpful if I shared some information about that?'” he suggests. “This gives the person control over the conversation, and he or she will automatically calm down.”
You can also refuse to answer the question, but be sure to be polite. “Say, ‘I appreciate that this is of interest but we don’t feel sharing the information is appropriate, especially at this time. But I’d be glad to answer other questions if you have them,'” says Sullivan. “Appreciate the interest but draw lines.”
It can be tempting to answer difficult questions with only a “yes” or a “no,” but it’s important to supplement them with a key message instead, says Kalm.
The way you hold your body is as important as your tone, says Sullivan. Maintain eye contact, and hold yourself in a neutral position. “The second you do anything makes you seem defensive, such as crossing your arms or avoiding eye contact, it puts the other person on edge,” he says. “They think, ‘Now I’ve got them.'” As Sullivan points out, “Neutral body language sends the message, ‘I want to answer this question,’ and that alone can help the situation.”