Pro tip: If you enjoy clarity, straightforwardness, and getting your questions answered, don’t watch political debates. According to debate consultant Brett O’Donnell, politicians on a national stage historically dodge the question being asked up to 70% of the time. Maybe that’s why the Pew Research Center recently found public distrust of U.S. government is at a 10-year high. (Also at a 10-year high: My craft beer consumption as I navigate this election cycle. Pumpkin ale, anyone?)
Effervescence aside, the question-dodging acrobatics of successful politicians are worth a second look. If this tactic is so slimy, why do aspiring representatives from a variety of ideologies keep using it? Simple: it works. When executed smoothly, a public figure’s response will imprint their message into the minds and hearts of listeners far more deeply than the question itself. If growing your career or pursuing new business opportunities involves you winning decision-makers over, examining these persuasion techniques is time well spent.
Politicians operate like this because they have to inspire at scale. One message must have the potential to move millions. You, on the other hand, only need to win over one investor or a panel or hiring managers to move the needle in your favor. Knowing how to gracefully and honestly dodge a question in an interview or presentation setting can help you stay in your lane, project confidence, and avoid stumbles.
Deflection over deception
In recently published research from Wharton professor Maurice Schweitzer and postdoc Brad Bitterly, a series of studies found that deflection—answering a question with another question—resulted in a more positive perception of honesty and likeability. Deflection worked best when not seen as an overt attempt at deception, and it also outperformed bluntly honest responses like “I would prefer not to answer that question” in terms of interpersonal reputation.
Take, for example, one of the most universal questions in the job interview process: “What are your salary requirements?” One response is to give your number first, which is basically shooting yourself in the foot with regard to negotiation leverage. Another more nuanced answer would be to share that you prefer discussing a compensation package when an offer is on the table, and then go on to highlight how much more expensive it is when companies hire the wrong person for the job. In an interview setting, you’ll spend time answering questions, but the actual objective is to sell yourself as the most thoughtful candidate.
Interviews have a power dynamic, and there are ways to leverage persuasion and tip the scales in your favor. Robert Greene’s enormously popular book The 48 Laws Of Power is a mood, but law 43’s assertions around negotiation are on point. Greene reminds us that “The key to persuasion is softening people up and breaking them down gently”, and the way to achieve this is by eliciting emotion. Facts tell, but stories sell, so if reorienting your answer is what it takes to tug on the heartstrings of your interviewer or an audience, do what you have to do to land your message.
Blocking and bridging
“Blocking and bridging,” in which you block the question being asked and instead bridge back to your core message, is standard practice for spokespeople. In a media training document for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, an organization founded in 1884 that now has over 400,000 members globally, blocking and bridging is introduced as a way to keep the conversation in your wheelhouse and prevent tangents on topics that are outside your expertise. Blocking and bridging helps us ensure our interviews are more honest and authentic, not less because we spend more time discussing topics we know well and less time dancing around ones we don’t.
While you may not be running for office, you do need to win the vote of your next prospective employer, shareholder, or investor to get ahead. Blocking and bridging can become slippery when overused, so here are a few things to keep in mind so you don’t end up falling on your own sword.
- Use “bridge” language. Bridge language refers to connecting statements or phrases that help you “bridge” back to your message or the point you want to land. Phrases like: “What’s important is,” or “From my perspective,” or even “This reminds me,” put you back into the driver’s seat of the conversation.
- Avoid negative words or phrases. Even when communicating what not to do for the sake of clarity, phrase it as a positive. Affirmative statements are easier to follow. Tell me what to do, rather than what not to do, and I’m more likely to lean in and listen to your solution.
- Brush up your on-video appearance. I hesitate to declare the “glow up” an effective career growth strategy, but putting effort and energy into your appearance certainly doesn’t hurt. Video call interviews and presentations have skyrocketed since quarantine began, and non-verbal cues will translate through your screen. Ninety-three percent of communication is nonverbal, so let your vibe do some of the talking.
Political debate cycles come and go, but the ways our brains respond to persuasion have remained the same for centuries. Know how to take control ethically and gracefully in an interview scenario. It could make the difference between falling short or coming out on top.
Nick Wolny is a former classically trained musician and a current online marketing strategist for small business owners, experts, and entrepreneurs.