Decoding the Artful Sidestep

Do you notice when someone changes the subject after you ask them a question? If you don't always notice or even mind such conversational transformations, you're not alone. New research by Todd Rogers and Harvard Business School professor Michael I. Norton explores the common occurrence of "conversational blindness." Q&A with Rogers. Key concepts include:
  • In the study, speakers who dodged a question suffered no ill will from their listeners and paid no price.
  • People prefer, trust, and like a question-dodger who is smooth and sounds confident over a question-answerer who is unsmooth and stammers.
  • If you're a listener who wants to avoid conversational blindness on important matters, here's a tip: Remember your question.
by Martha Lagace

We heard question-dodging in the U.S. presidential debates not long ago. And everyone hears it in normal political discourse, in business meetings, and in typical daily life—but are people really listening? Sometimes, it seems, individuals who are asked a difficult question do not answer it, but instead provide distraction by answering something they would rather have been asked. And what is more, oftentimes their listeners either do not notice the verbal sleight of hand or do not mind it.

New research by Todd Rogers (HBS Ph.D '08) and Harvard Business School professor Michael I. Norton listens in closely to the phenomenon of "conversational blindness"—listeners' failure to notice such dodges and to socially punish transgressors unless the attempts are egregious. "More troublingly, listeners preferred speakers who answered the wrong question well over those who answered the right question poorly," the authors note.

"In this research we find that, at least in part, people value style over substance because the style blinds us to the lack of substance," says Rogers.

The researchers' working paper, "Conversational Blindness: Answering the Wrong Question the Right Way," is available for download [PDF].

Todd Rogers, now Executive Director of the Analyst Institute, explained more.

Martha Lagace: What observations or experiences got you interested in studying conversational blindness? Was it inspired by the U.S. election season specifically, or was this topic on your radar for other reasons?

Todd Rogers: This line of research began when I was watching a press conference where the spokesman basically didn't answer any of the questions he was asked. I didn't even realize he was dodging until a question was asked about a topic I cared a lot about (I believe it was something about a specific education policy). I was especially interested in the answer, so when it never came I began to wonder: Has he been dodging questions all along? I think he had been. I told Mike about it, and immediately we knew this would be a very interesting topic to understand better.

Q: How did you go about designing your study in order to get a handle on this topic?

A: It actually took us a couple of tries to come up with this design. The challenge was coming up with an experimental design where the objective quality of the response was equal across conditions, but the egregiousness of the dodge varied. We initially came up with a few different responses that we thought were of roughly similar "quality" and had participants read the same question followed by the different responses. This design worked, but it could not address the concern that those findings might have been the result of different qualities of the responses. The design we report in our paper solves that problem: We hold the response constant and vary only the question that is asked.

Q: What were the results that most interested you, and did they surprise you?

A: There are two findings that we find most interesting. First, it is striking that participants failed to punish the speaker when he dodged the question asked. For example, the speaker paid no price for answering a question about the illegal drug use problem in the United States with a discussion of why we need universal health-care insurance. This lack of penalty might explain why overt dodging appears so prevalent in politics (and in life).

“Listening is much more taxing than we might think.”

The second interesting finding was that people prefer, trust, and like a question-dodger who is smooth and sounds confident over a question-answerer who is unsmooth and stammers. Perhaps that is not surprising, but it is very concerning. In this research we find that, at least in part, people value style over substance, because the style blinds us to the lack of substance.

Q: What makes conversational blindness so common?

A: Listening is much more taxing than we might think. Listening requires that we hear and comprehend each phrase, relate each phrase to the last, fill in implied components of what's being said, and observe and integrate the speaker's nonverbal communication. Mike and I think conversational blindness occurs in part because real-world conversations occur as a continuous ebb and flow, leaving little time for people to reflect on how every statement links to each previous statement.

Q: Does conversational blindness also serve in some way as social glue?

A: Interesting question. One of the positive results that come from our inability to detect the shifting of a conversation is that we can move seamlessly from one topic to another semantically similar topic. In my experience, some of the most interesting and creative conversations have resulted from this natural (and unnoticed) veering.

Q: If one of us is in a position in which we are potentially susceptible to conversational blindness, how can we get the information we really need?

A: I think the key is to vigilantly remember the question you asked. If you immerse yourself in trying to understand the nuance of what the speaker is saying, you may lose track of your original question. It may be more pleasant to engage fully and go with the flow of a conversation. But if you want an answer, you need to make sure the speaker provides one.

In the first presidential debate Jim Lehrer did this. He asked both candidates whether they supported the economic recovery plan. Neither gave him a direct response, so after several minutes of candidate "answers" he followed up with, "All right, let's go back to my question."

Q: What are you working on next?

A: There are two next steps. First, when two people have a normal conversation, how often do questions go unanswered and unnoticed, and when they do, how does this occur?

Second, we want to see how to prevent unpunished question-dodging. For example, television networks have taken steps to curtail politicians' efforts to dodge questions during political debates by posting the question asked for the duration of the politicians' answers. Mike and I expect this will increase the penalty for dodging a question, and in the intermediate term reduce dodging. Does it work and what other steps can be taken? These are fascinating areas for future study.

Email Todd Rogers.

About the Author

Martha Lagace is senior editor of Working Knowledge.