Think Twice Before You Say Nothing

The political season is upon us again and we are being presented with the latest episodes of SYTYCD—So You Think You Can Debate.

A recent study from Harvard offers the following research-based advice: If you’re stumped by a question in an interview, fake it. You’ll have a better chance of making a good impression if you respond eloquently and slightly irrelevantly than if you answer truthfully but with a dozen “uhs” and “ums” thrown in, according to the study.

Subjects were shown different videos of a political debate. In the first, one of the candidates answered the question asked. In the second, he dodged it by answering a similar question. In the third, he dodged it by answering a completely different one. When the candidate answered a similar question, subjects failed to notice the switch. They also liked him better if he answered a similar question well than if he answered the actual one less eloquently.

People who dodge questions artfully are liked and trusted more than people who respond to questions truthfully but with less polish. The take-home message for job candidates is that interviewers may not remember if you avoid a question, as long as you do it eloquently. As many high-school debate champions know well, people treasure style over substance, and will be inclined to trust you more if you come off looking like you know what you’re talking about, even if you don’t.

HR people look for that sense of collectedness; being able to gracefully answer any question that’s put to you, even if you are not completely sure of the answer, will help convince them of your poise.

Robert McNamara famously said, “Never answer the question that is asked of you. Answer the question that you wish had been asked.” It’s important to recognize the transition devices. The first 10 words of an answer are key to creating an artful dodge. You’ll hear phrases like “That’s a good question” or “I’m glad you asked that.” This seems to help prime the listener to accept what comes next as relevant.

Many politicians seemed to have mastered this skill. Hillary Clinton was phenomenal at dodging questions. Our current President is deft at sidestepping. And looking back, Ronald Reagan was a master dodger, too. Sarah Palin has a unique approach. She is sort of intellectually honest about dodging questions. She basically states her intention to answer a different question than the one asked.

This verbal judo is not confined to political discourse. It applies to business as well. Think about the leader fielding tough questions about layoffs. Or George Clooney’s character in Up in the Air. He flies around the country firing people. They say things to him like “How can you fire me?” and he doesn’t answer them. He dodges. He says, “This is an opportunity for you.”

Years ago when I was obtaining my license to practice psychology, I was supervised by the first licensed psychologist in Georgia. Hermon was 98 when I met him and he died at 104. He was unbelievably bright, wise, energetic, and embodied a wonderful southern gentility and charm. We interviewed and assessed thousands of job candidates for our clients. In full sight, Hermon had an interesting plaque on his desk that said, “Think Twice Before You Say Nothing.” You could see just about every interviewee pause as they pondered this instructive yet enigmatic message.

I hope I hear straight answers to the debate questions coming up over the next few months. And I hope I’m not impressed by the artful dodger.