The Very Real Consequences of Evasive Answers

Some time back I was in a meeting with a project manager who presented the status on his troubled project to the project sponsor and other executive stakeholders. This project was of high interest to the sponsor and stakeholders as they were depending on its successful completion to make some major changes in their respective organizations. The project sponsor asked the project manager a very straightforward question:

Why is the project slipping?

The project manager went into a long, meandering monologue. The sponsor interrupted and asked the question again. More meandering from the project manager. Seeing the sponsor and other stakeholders’ growing frustration, the project manager’s boss stepped in and said they needed to do more homework and would come back the next day better prepared. The next day, the project manager’s boss presented the status and answered questions–along with a new project manager.

Through my career I’ve seen (and been in) plenty of situations where an exec’s (who I will refer to as “the asker”) questions were met with evasive responses. It could be that the person being asked (“the askee”) didn’t want to admit not knowing something or be proven wrong. The askee would then, as we liked to say in the consulting world, “tap dance” to attempt any response that might satisfy the asker. More often than not, the asker would grow frustrated with the evasiveness. This led me to the following hypothesis:

If an asker asks a question, the asker expects a direct answer.

When an askee is evasive, the askee leaves it to the asker to make up his/her own answer.

The askee has not only damaged his/her credibility, but now has to change the asker’s perception of the answer.

While my focus is in executive interaction, the same principle applies to other relationships like spouses or business partners. When an askee is evasive, the asker makes up his/her own answer, and the askee now has to dig out of a hole to reestablish credibility and set the record straight.

Need to build your answering skills? Keep the following eight tips in mind:

Listen first then answer – Take the time to listen to a question without interrupting the asker, then when the asker is finished, give a response. Resist the urge to interrupt to get your answer in.
Do ensure clarity – If you truly don’t understand a question, then by all means ask for clarification. But don’t continually ask for clarity; it could look like you’re deflecting.
Give straight answers – If you’re asked a direct yes/no question, give a yes/no response. If there are contextual factors that support the answer or conditions that may change the answer, then provide them–concisely. And please don’t say, “It depends” without qualification.
Don’t reframe – Saying something like “The question you should be asking is… ” immediately conveys that you think the asker isn’t intelligent enough to ask the right questions. Acknowledge the question, respond, and move on.
Don’t deflect – Changing the topic to avoid answering a question may work if the asker can be distracted, but usually the asker can sniff out when someone is avoiding a question by changing the topic. Do it once and you’ll probably get some grace for innocently not understanding the question; do it two or more times and you’ll be viewed as an avoider.
Don’t attack validity – Saying something like, “That’s not important,” or “You shouldn’t ask that,” tells the asker you believe his or her intelligence is inferior to yours. If the asker is taking the time to ask a question, then assume the question is important to him/her.
Say “I don’t know” – If you don’t know the answer to a question then be quick to say “I don’t know, I need to get back to you.” Then record the question and be prepared for a “When will you know?” follow-up from the asker.
Be quick to admit if you’re not prepared – Too many “I don’t knows” may mean you have to do more research. It’s best to avoid this by being clear on the topic and prepared to discuss it. One humiliating abrupt ending to a meeting with a “you need to do more homework” directive will motivate you to not let it happen again.

This bears repeating: the consequences of evasive answers not only means the asker makes up his/her own answer, it also harms the askee’s credibility. Give straight answers and control the narrative.