Communication and Conflict Management: Responding to Tough Questions

In communication and conflict management, answering certain questions directly can put us at a disadvantage. Deflecting with a question of our own can be an effective alternative.

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Here are a few interview questions that job candidates often dread:

  • “How much do you earn at your current position?”
  • “Can you see yourself working here in five years?”
  • “Do you have any other offers?”

Most of us feel compelled to respond honestly and completely to direct questions in negotiation, communication and conflict management, even when doing so could hurt us. If you are currently underpaid, for example, answering the first question truthfully is liable to keep you that way.


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Other common strategies don’t seem much better:

  • Declining to answer a tough question can seem evasive: “I’d rather not answer that” or “I’ll have to get back to you.”
  • Dodging—answering a different question than asked—can also seem cagey: “I was very happy at my last company” when asked how much you earned there.
  • Paltering, or providing truthful statements with the intention to deceive—for instance, saying “My company is generous to its employees” when you personally are underpaid—is perceived as dishonest and increases the odds of impasse, Harvard Kennedy School professor Todd Rogers and his colleagues have found.
  • Lying outright—“I’m considering several great offers” when you have none—is unethical and can backfire.

There’s a better way to respond to difficult questions for better negotiations and effective conflict resolution. In a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers T. Bradford Bitterly of the University of Michigan and Maurice E. Schweitzer of the University of Pennsylvania find that deflecting a tough question with a question of your own can help you avoid sharing sensitive information without being deceptive or irritating your counterpart. Deflection can be a useful skill in negotiation, communication and conflict management.

An Artful Response in Communication and Conflict Management

Across several experiments, Bitterly and Schweitzer looked at how participants responded to deflection as compared to other types of responses to difficult direct questions. In one online experiment, participants were asked to read a transcript of a fictitious negotiation between an art dealer who was trying to sell a painting to a prospective buyer. The painting was said to be one in a series by a recently deceased artist, Jim Brine, and would be much more valuable to the buyer if he or she owned other paintings in the series.

All participants read that the seller asked the buyer, “Are you familiar with Jim Brine, the artist?” Participants then read one of the following buyer responses:

Honest disclosure: “I actually bought [another painting in the series] a couple years ago at an auction.”

Decline to respond: “I’m not prepared to discuss my collection right now.”

Lie of commission: “I’ve never heard of Brine, I just think this piece could look great next to the fireplace.”

Palter: “I’m not a professional collector or anything like that.”

Dodge: “I’m in town for a couple of days, and I noticed some other paintings at other galleries that I also liked.”

Deflection condition: “Didn’t he pass away recently?”

Deflection yielded better economic outcomes for the buyer than honest disclosure. Participants also said they trusted, liked, and would be more interested in negotiating again with a seller who deflected than with one who declined to respond. And while lying, paltering, and dodging at first generated better results than deflection, when participants were told that the buyer had hidden information, deflection proved to be a more effective strategy.

“By responding to a question with a question, individuals can maintain favorable interpersonal impressions, capture economic surplus by avoiding revealing potentially costly economic information, and avoid the risks inherent in using deception,” write Bitterly and Schweitzer. Participants tended to respond positively to deflection because they viewed the other party’s question as an attempt to seek additional information, another experiment showed. It seems likely that deflection could help with efforts aimed at managing conflict through communication as well.

Preparing to Respond

Whether you intend to try deflection or not when negotiating and handling conflict, try to identify in advance difficult questions the other party might ask, advises Harvard Business School professor James K. Sebenius. Brainstorm possible responses and choose the one that seems like it would maximize your outcomes while preserving your relationship with the other party. Practice your answers, perhaps by role-playing the negotiation with a trusted colleague.

In negotiation, communication and conflict management, preparing to face difficult questions can help us identify additional data we need to gather and various strategies we might try to “steer the negotiation away from the hardest question in the first place,” writes Sebenius. In this manner, you might be able to build a stronger agreement and avoid the need for conflict resolution.

What negotiation, communication and conflict management strategies have you found most useful when facing difficult questions?

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