March 2020 | 

Why You Need to Learn the Art of Deflection

Why You Need to Learn the Art of Deflection

“What is your current salary?” “Why did earnings take a hit in the last quarter?” “When did you realize the project would go over budget?” If you’ve ever been asked a question like these, you can probably remember feeling trapped, and then tempted to respond in one of three common ways: answer honestly, answer dishonestly, or decline to answer. All three are problematic, says Wharton management professor Maurice Schweitzer.

“There are questions you should answer — and then there are ones that make sense to avoid (and some, like “are you married,” that are even illegal when asked in an interview). Just like the Miranda Warning, ‘Anything you say can and will be used against you.’ But the way you avoid answering a question can make a tremendous difference. According to my research, there are economic costs for honestly revealing information and reputational costs for engaging in deception,” he says.

“If you’re currently working for a nonprofit, for example, you might not want to reveal your salary to a potential new employer in a corporate setting. If you’re selling your business, you might not want to reveal how much of your inventory needs to be reworked. In both cases, you could take an economic hit in terms of a lowered offer.”

The second option — lying — has obvious downsides if you’re caught. “At the very least your reputation would take a hit,” says Schweitzer, who recently discussed his research on answering difficult questions with participants in the Effective Decision-Making: Thinking Critically and Rationally program.

Both of these responses, though, are common. When you’re in a situation like a negotiation or interview, the other party is attempting to get information from you. But there’s something else going on at the same time: you’re managing that person’s impression of you and trying to get along. That means when you’re asked a direct question you may feel compelled to answer. In the moment you can feel trapped.

What’s the harm, then, in just refusing to answer the question? Think about your reaction when a trial witness takes the fifth: he’s probably either guilty or protecting someone else who is, right? “Silence can actually be useful information,” says Schweitzer. “If I’m interviewing you and ask what other offers you have and you don’t answer, you probably don’t have any. If you can’t tell me when your project started spiraling out of control cost-wise, I assume you’ve known for a while. Silence in these cases is a signal.”

In a new study, Schweitzer found that declining to answer also lowers feelings of trust and liking. The good news, though, is that there’s a fourth option that overcomes the downsides of the first three: deflection. “When you’re asked a difficult question, consider posing a new one. This strategy is incredibly effective in changing the direction of the conversation and protecting your interests,” he says.

In a study conducted with Brad Bitterly of the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, Schweitzer found that, compared to refusing to answer or lying, deflection made sellers think that their counterpart was seeking to learn information rather than trying to hide information. It seems that because we generally like people who are curious and open, deflection can boost trust and liking compared to declining to disclose or deception.

One way to do that is by using humor, which is another subject Schweitzer has studied with his former PhD student Brad Bitterly. “Humor can be a useful tool for changing the topic. When you’re asked a difficult or uncomfortable question, like how much is your rent, or how much do you make, a joke can shift the conversation and enable you to get out of answering the question.” For the latter, he suggests something like “Will that impact who pays for coffee?” Or, “Will you still validate my parking?” Initially these responses seem funny, but they work as deflections too.

The next time you’re heading into a conversation that could include difficult direct questions, work on anticipating them ahead of time and crafting deflections. Schweitzer recommends compiling lists of routinely asked or expected questions, whether you’re interviewing for a job, giving a presentation, or conducting an earnings call. He also says good deflection questions stick to the same subject as the initial question and/or get the other person to talk about him or herself.

Then, anticipate responses to your deflection questions. Just as you feel compelled to answer direct questions, your conversational partner does too. If you respond to a direct question such as, “What is the salary range you are looking for?” with “What are you prepared to offer?” anticipate that your counterpart will feel the need to answer your question. How could you build on that answer with additional questions or comments to continue to steer the conversation?

Most people skip these steps, says Schweitzer, and instead just wing it. “If you want to do well, though, you have to prepare. There can be serious downsides to answering truthfully, lying, or refusing to answer certain questions. That’s true whether you’re in sales, negotiations, or other relatively easy-to-anticipate situations. Deflection can be a much better strategy.”