How to Dodge a Difficult Question

Econ blogger Steve Waldman, who recently participated in a meeting with Treasury Department officials, takes note of the technique employed by officials to dodge difficult questions:

In response to a several difficult questions, one official enthused that what the interlocutor had brought up was an important concern, something he really cared about, but then quickly went on to assert that, in his judgment, it was unlikely to be the pivotal or most challenging problem. I thought this a very effective trick to sweep an issue aside, a kind of jujitsu by which the official would render very sharp comments harmless by moving with rather than fighting against the questioner. After this move, the only possible disagreement is a judgment call about which of many problems is most pressing, and whose judgment would be better than that of a senior official immersed daily in the practicalities of policy?

Clever. Agree that it's an important question, but not the most important question. Then turn to the more important question. Perhaps even present the "more important" question back to the audience for their oh-so-valued feedback.

He then goes on to note how the Treasury officials employed the oldest trick in the book: flattery.

Twice Treasury officials commented on how uncommon a group we were, how we asked particularly pointed questions or were unusually bright. To borrow a cliché, I'll bet they say that to all the groups. One official made use of an expletive early in his discussion, which had the effect of making us feel like insiders, like this was not the sort of canned, guarded conversation one might see on CNN. The same official was quick to address us by first name when responding to questions. That wasn't hard, since our names were in front of us, written on placards in large letters. But it was still effective. Being addressed so familiarly makes you feel important, like you are someone powerful people deem worth their while to know. Obviously, the reality distortion field wears off when you leave, once you think it over. But these guys are pretty good at what they do.

Flattery, false bonding, etc: Even if you know it's happening, it doesn't mean it's not effective.

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