How to Gracefully Deflect a Question You Don’t Want to Answer
The classic politician move can also be a powerful tool for real life
In In the canon of iconic political deflections, one moment stands out.
It was 1984, and then-73-year-old Ronald Reagan was facing questions about his age in his campaign against a younger opponent. “At the debate against Walter Mondale, when they asked, Reagan said, ‘I won’t make age an issue, or exploit my opponent’s youth and inexperience,’” says Ron Bratt, CEO of the public-speaking summer camp organization Capitol Debate. “It became this really famous deflection.” And as history shows, it worked.
The ability to punt on uncomfortable questions is an essential skill for any political candidate, but deflection is a powerful communication tool outside of the political arena, too. Anyone who’s ever sat through a job interview knows the feeling of being hit with a question you don’t want to answer too honestly. And the occasional well-deployed subject change can be a real relationship saver: “A lot of people are trying to avoid talking about politics right now,” says Stephanie Smith, a psychologist based in Colorado. “Sometimes just to preserve a friendship, or just to not get in a big heavy discussion, even if you agree with the person, you can deflect.”
Then again, if you do it poorly or use it too often, deflection can make you seem disingenuous. Whether you’re running for office, gunning for a job, or just trying to avoid an awkward topic at brunch, there’s an art to gracefully getting around a question you don’t really want to answer.
Reagan’s line about Mondale, Bratt explains, is a prime example of the attack deflection: turning something directed toward you into a burn on someone else. “Think of it as passing the ball to another candidate,” he says. “If Elizabeth Warren is asked where she’s going to get the money to pay for her plans, she might turn to Pete Buttigieg and say, ‘Not from people doing fundraisers in wine caves.”
Of course, unless your job involves sparring on a debate stage, passing the buck can make you seem more irresponsible than assertive. But, if you’re careful, you may be able to turn the question back on the…