In my career, I have observed some methods on how people are able to respond to questions without actually answering them (some of these methods were outright told to me as well). Essentially, the individual answering the question may just be trying to make you go away, period. Since we are entering the meat of the campaigning season, deflection seems to be an appropriate topic.
Below I will list some of the examples that I have been privy to and how one might respond to the situation.
**Disclaimer: The following examples are not things that I employ or condone using, they are “tricks of the trade” that I have been introduced to over the years**
- Precision – To make your answers seem more legitimate, be more precise in your response. Instead of saying the product margin is about 30%, say 32.4%. Since you did not use a round number, or an approximation, the answer seems more credible.
How to respond – This one can be difficult, but if your gut tells you something is amiss here, request some supporting detail behind the figures. You don’t have to be too specific, but now the table has been turned on the party providing the answer to back up the figure. If they had an exact number, they must have had a reliable source for that answer.
- Qualitative Misdirection – When dealing with results that aren’t favorable, turn the attention to qualitative features (hard to disprove) that seem more favorable. For instance, if sales are underperforming, you can talk about how there are new potential customers, a really good presentation to a new client, or new products that are getting a good reception in the market.
How to respond – First, you have to realize that by employing this tactic, someone is admitting defeat on the initial area of concern. This needs to be highlighted and not glossed over. Second, it’s fine if things are “turning around”, but if you are banking on these future events / actions, you need to have someone commit to when the results will actually occur (in writing is usually best – this is a good way to use email). Ultimately, you have to not let this turn into a game of whack-a-mole, because that is what the other party is trying to accomplish (buying time).
- Complicated Explanations – This one really cuts at the heart of the quote above. There are two avenues here, one is to actually use a really complicated explanation, the other direction is just to reference something complicated, under the hope that everyone realizes it will be a big waste of time, and then avoid it completely. My favorite example is when margins are off from what is expected, and someone pipes up and says, “It’s a mix issue”. What they are referencing is that because the sales mix may be different (some products sell at different margins), the mix is causing the variance (never mind that the overall margin $ are not achieved). There could be some legitimacy to this statement, but it’s hard to say unless the figures prove it out.
How to respond – In general, you have to decide if you want to risk wasting time if the explanation will be too complicated and specific for a particular audience to follow. If a detailed discussion is warranted, perhaps take it offline and have the smaller group report back later (someone can get the 2 minute summary in an email vs. spending 15 minutes listening to minutiae that is irrelevant). If it is a mix issue, per the example above, ask for a calculation to support that, absent the ability to provide that, you cannot allow a party to claim something they cannot back up.
- Forecasting Error – As many people realize over time, forecasting is more of an art than a science. So, sometimes when there is a variance to the forecast, instead of focusing on the actual result as the problem, the attention is redirected it to the forecast. I have to admit, there is some truthiness to forecasting errors.
How to respond – The trick with this is to make sure that by delving into #4, you don’t morph it into a complicated explanation (#3). To address these types of situations, someone should be able to produce a reconciliation, one that does not require a knowledge of hieroglyphics. Here is an example below to show a realistic example of a semi-reasonable forecasting error. If salaries for the year were $120 and were forecasted at $10 per month, but the actual was accrued on the # of business days per month, the expenses could be tracking despite variances north of 5% in 4 separate months. The issue here is matching up the forecasting methodology with the accounting practice.