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Ducking the question

Monday, 25 Junuary 2010

About a month ago, I was listening to a report on the causes and impact of people in the public eye "ducking the question": either failing to give a direct response, failing to give any response at all, or diverting the topic onto something else completely, as quickly as possible.

Obviously, the prime targets for this investigation was were politicians, and they are pretty easy targets to hit. The more interesting aspects, from a communication point of view, were the impact of the question on the quality of the answer given, and the way in which team and teamwork responsibility can be seen to undermine people's ability to communicate fully openly.

The purpose of this article is to explore both of these potential limitations to genuine, open and honest communication, and to see whether there is anything in there that would undermine the basic principle we operate under, which is to be very straightforward in our communication.

For further information on our principles, click here, and for more on open and honest communication, click here.

The role of the question

The most famous example of a leading (unfair) question I know is the "have you stopped beating your wife" question, supposedly asked by a prosecution barrister in court. Obviously, whether the direct answer to the question is yes or no, there are broader implications for the person answering the question (no, I'm still beating her, or yes, I used to beat her but have stopped now). There are many more subtle ones than that, which lead people to either be inaccurate or evasive.

Take for example the following two ways of asking a similar question:
  • How fast was the red car going when it smashed into the blue car?
  • How fast was each car going when the accident happened?

These questions could be posed after the same event, but with different consequences in terms of the quality of the communication that follows.

To give a simple, direct answer to the first question leads to certain possible implications: the red car was at fault; the accident was a violent one; the blue car was innocent. The danger is that a non-simple answer can sound evasive. Is this a reason for not being clear with our communication?

I think not. It is much more a case of being extremely attentive to questions, and, when necessary, questioning the assumptions, openly, behind any questions, so that the real, plain truth can be sought. These kind of questions are actually a brilliant justification for taking more time, effort and care over the quality of our communication.

The responsibility to the team

Charles Clarke, the former minister, gave an impassioned defence of (some) politicians effectively refusing to answer questions, using any of the evasion techniques we hear so much of. The defence was that, if he were to have answered some questions directly, his personal standing may have improved (via an increased perception of him being straightforward and honest), but he might also have caused knock-on problems for some of his colleagues in the cabinet, and that therefore always being totally up front about things can undermine teamwork.

The robust way in which he pitched this defence – and particularly the self-effacing aspect of avoiding personal gain for the good of the team – had it's appeal for me. But not for long. The reason that the appeal did not last is not a specifically communication-related one, but is one that is more concerned with coordinated strategy and coherent plans (which a forthcoming article will cover in more detail. For now, perhaps it is suffice to say that if a team has a coherent, coordinated plan, founded on principles rather than rules and regulations, then any communication tied into those principles must be fundamentally supportive of the team. Only communication against the principles, or communication that exposes gaps between the principles and the detail of the plans, can undermine the team.

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There are a million and one justifications given for not communicating fully openly and honestly, and, I firmly believe, at least as many ways of exposing these as either self-serving, dishonest or lazy. To my mind, the principle of straightforward communication stands.


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