Conversationally Sidetracked: Beware of Red Herrings!


Have you ever asked someone something and heard their answer, only to walk away and think, “I don’t think they ever answered my question.”

How many times has someone said something to you that made no sense?

How often has someone said something to you that they know will bother you and send you down a diverted path?  For example, have you confronted someone who has turned something in late? They may respond with an excuse. This response spirals the conversation down a different path because you are responding to their criticism of you, rather than the issue at hand.

Welcome to the world of red herrings. A red herring is something that diverts attention from the basic issue at hand.  In communication, a red herring throws the listener off track with phrases or comments that sound meaningful and important, but really just lead the conversation down a path of wasted time.

A typical example of this is when people respond, “That’s just the way I am.”  What does that mean?  The person is predisposed or genetically wired to always do something a certain way?  The truth is that people can do something different if they truly want to.  Many times we don’t really want to do something different – but it just doesn’t sound good to say it that way.  Therefore, we respond with what sounds like a real excuse…but of course, it is really a red herring.

There are three ways you can handle the Red Herring:

1.         Ignore it and focus on the issue at hand. For example if someone says, “It’s just the way I am.  I am always late.” You reply, “OK.  Are you going to get the report to me on time by 3 p.m.?”

Don’t allow yourself to get pulled down a dead-end road when a person uses a red herring.  In the example, notice that there were no responses to the comment, “It’s just the way I am.  I am always late.”  There is no need to comment.  The issue at hand is the report.  Refocus the conversation to resolve the issue at hand.  Repeat yourself if necessary. This technique is especially useful when people say things that they think will “get your goat.” Just ignore it and focus on the objective of the conversation.

2.         Question it using the Columbo method ,“I’m confused.  You said you would get the report to me by 3 p.m.  Are you going to give it to me on time?”

3.         Use the million-dollar test. If you asked the person, “If I were able to give you a million dollars to give me the report on time, would you give it to me on time?”  The person would likely say, “Well, yes, but you don’t have a million dollars.”  Your response would be, “Exactly.  You could give me the report on time if you wanted to. So what’s it going to take so that I can count on this report coming in on time?” In other words, it is a question of desire and commitment–not a question of ability. The truth is that most people can change just about anything if they are really willing to. The question is: Are they willing?

No one can throw you off track unless you allow him or her to.  It is up to you to take control of the issues and refocus conversations.  You can make it happen and get the results you want by ignoring the red herrings.