How to dodge a question (maybe)

It’s not only politicians who sometimes want to avoid answering a question, and a recent Science Friday podcast explained how skillful speakers manage to sidestep without turning off the audience. Staying “close enough”to the subject and speaking fluently are important for a successful escape, research found.

In one study, subjects heard a speaker give the same answer about universal health care to questions about health care, illegal drug use and the war on terror. Listeners recognized when the speaker didn’t answer the question about the war on terror and gave him lower ratings. But when the speaker answered the drug question with the health care answer, listeners didn’t remember the question and rated the speaker just likeable, trustworthy and honest as those who heard that answer in response to the health care question.

That’s not as surprising as a related study, which also tested a speaker giving the health care answer to the health care question, but stuttering instead of speaking smoothly. In that study, listeners gave higher ratings to the speaker who fluently answered the drug question with the health care answer than listeners gave the speaker who stumbled while answering the health care question.

“It’s better to answer the wrong question well than the right question poorly,” social psychologist Todd Rogers, an assistant professor of public policy at Harvard University, explained on the program.

But Rogers also noted that his research wasn’t aimed at helping people avoid questions. In fact, there’s a simple and effective way to prevent it: Post the verbatim question where the audience can see it while the person is answering. Then the listeners detect even subtle attempts to dodge.

Remember that technique the next time you moderate a discussion.

What’s the slickest sidestep you’ve seen? 


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