Do Your Conversations Get Sidetracked? Beware of Red Herrings!

By: Steven Gaffney

Has anyone ever said something they know is irritating to you to divert the conversation away from the real issue? It has happened to all of us. Afterward, you walk away and think, “I don’t think they ever addressed my concern.”

For instance, have you confronted someone about turning something in late, and instead of addressing the issue, they respond by reminding you of the things you did not complete on time? They do this to push your buttons, distract from the real issue, and then send the conversation down an entirely different path.

Welcome to the world of red herrings. A red herring is something that diverts attention from the issue at hand. In communication, a red herring is a phrase or comment that sounds meaningful and important, but it really just throws the listener off track and leads the conversation down another path.

If you’ve ever confronted someone about their behavior and they responded, “That’s just the way I am,” then you’ve encountered a red herring. Consider their response. What does it really mean? Does it mean that the person is predisposed or genetically wired to always do something a certain way? The truth is that people can change if they truly want to, and often they just don’t want to — but it doesn’t sound good to admit that. So, they respond with what sounds like a real excuse. But of course, it is really just a red herring.

Here are three ways to handle a red herring:

1. Ignore it and focus on the issue at hand.

If someone says, “It’s just the way I am. I am always late.” You reply, “Okay. Are you going to get the report to me on time by three this afternoon?” Don’t allow yourself to get pulled down a dead-end road by a red herring. Notice that there was no response to the comment, “It’s just the way I am. I am always late.” There is no need to comment. The issue is the report. Re-focus 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 their comments and focus on the objective of the conversation.

2. Question it using the Columbo Method.

You could say something like, “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?” By acknowledging that you are confused, you are acknowledging that their red herring comment does not have to do with the issue at hand. This also allows you to restate the original question.

3. Use the million-dollar test.

Ask 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 really 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 do so. 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 not falling for the red herrings.

Take Action
Pass this tip on to people you care about; your co-workers, your boss, your employees, your family and friends. Use it as a basis to talk to the people around your office, in your organization, and your personal life. Consider if you have encountered any of these red herrings in your work or personal life so you can put a stop to them and get the results you desire. If you get stuck, send me an email or contact my office for help at 703 241 7796.

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