Don’t Answer That

Not all questions require—or even deserve—a response, but ignoring or deflecting questions is a skill that doesn’t come easy. We’re conditioned to answer questions, even when it would probably be much more prudent to exercise our right to remain silent. But tendency doesn’t have to be destiny.

Four ideas will help you effectively ignore or deflect unwanted questions:

Answer what’s easy and delay the rest. People have a habit of asking multiple questions in both written and in verbal interactions. Instead of feeling obligated to answer the hard or the provocative questions which usually capture your attention, answer the easy ones first and ask for time to field the rest. And since questions frequently resolve on their own without our intervention, delaying some questions—especially difficult or unwanted ones—is often a smart choice.

Respond with paragraphs. Just because questions came to you in bullet form or as a numerical list doesn’t mean that you have to answer them line by line. Reply with a single set of paragraphs (i.e not with a paragraph per question, but with paragraphs that respond to all the questions you want to field) and you’ll have more freedom to answer what and how you like.

Switch to a phone call. For even more flexibility than paragraphs provide, respond to written questions with a phone call. Before calling, know which questions you won’t answer and have a reason for your unresponsiveness at the ready (see below). A timely and synchronous response is often gratifying to the questioner because it signals that you take the queries seriously. And for you, a phone call provides a way to answer with flexibility.

Give yourself a way out. It’s easier than you think to buy time before responding to a question, and people are often much more open to the promise of a future answer than we often suspect. Use responses like “I’ll have to do some research and get back to you on that” and “I’m not sure what I think about that right now” as ways to postpone your responses until you’re ready to answer.

Timely responses often satisfy a questioner, even when you don’t respond to all of his or her queries. Ignore and deflect unhelpful and unwanted questions, and see how far your partial answers get you.

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