Have you ever tried to have a serious conversation with someone that continually avoided the topic that you were trying to address? If so, fear not for you are far from alone. As a coach, I continually work with people on deep personal growth topics that are of high value to the coachee. Even in this situation there are many people that struggle to stay on topic. I always find this amazing considering the topic that they come to coaching for is themselves – what could be more important to them!
What is a Deflection?
A deflection is simply a way to avoid discussing what really matters in a conversation. Often people that deflect conversation would be considered by outsiders to be quite jovial. When you approach them with a problem, comment or question they may happily respond with a silly and light hearted joke related to what you are presenting. Or they may smile at you and respond – how about them 49ers.
Whatever their response, deflection is the art of skillfully and ‘seemingly’ harmlessly shifting a topic from one of greater importance to one of relative unimportance. The result: often questions remain unanswered, progress remains stunted, and a conversation never gets beneath the surface.
Whats going on when people deflect?
While I’ve no formal education on the psychology behind why people deflect, I can speak from my experience in working with numerous people that ‘avoid’ certain topics like the plague. Often deflection is a sign that what you are bringing up is important, its unresolved, and it is a struggle for the person that is dealing with it. People that deflect feel more comfortable internalizing these struggles then speaking openly about them. For friends, family, and life coaches this provides a pretty significant challenge since a major building block for relationships either in social circles or professional ones is open and truthful communication. How does one support a family member or coach a client that constantly deflects conversation?
Seeing Deflections for what they are
When you are in a conversation and you are in the midst of ‘real life’ discussions, its rather difficult to notice a deflection if you are allowing the conversation to flow. Its easy to get caught up in the conversation particularly when the deflector is coaxing the conversation with pleasurable adages. Because of this, it is very important to see the deflection for what it is rather than to be caught up in the conversation. This is an act of raising consciousness and it takes practice. Often we’ll miss out on the deflection and think later – why didn’t I say something! Remember – it takes practice, the person using the deflection has likely mastered the skill over years or even decades, so you shouldn’t expect to be able to avoid all deflections just after reading one article on the topic.
Again – step 1, be conscious to what’s happening so you can act.
Deflections v. A Wandering Mind
Before moving on, I want to make a distinction between a person that is deflecting conversation and a person that has a wandering mind. When you are coaching, time is limited and time costs money. If you are outside the coaching realm and are simply having a conversation with someone, you may not be constrained by the limits of time so wandering conversation may not be detrimental. For coaches however, its important to notice deflections that steer you off topic as well as wandering discussions as they create a lack of focus that impedes on the clients ability to make progress during the time you have together. Here are the major difference between the two:
- Deflections serve the purpose of deliberately steering the conversation off topic
- Deflections are used as a way to hide what is really important to someone
- Deflections are a sign that you are touching upon something that the person is uncomfortable with (and it may be hiding what needs to be discovered)
- Wanderers have lots of ideas and often lack focus
- Wanderers are happy to get back to the topic of focus, but really feel that its important to share ancillary information
- Wanderers are not avoiding conversation, they will rather speak at length on important and unimportant topics.
Again, be conscious of both of these tendencies as either will steer you off topic, the methods for dealing with people that deflect however are much different than dealing with people who’s conversation wanders (fodder for a future blog article)
Strategies for moving past deflections
If you’d like to bring an end to the seemingly endless set of deflections your partner, friend, co-worker or client seem to throw at you, you’ll have to confront that individual the next time it happens. This can be difficult as I’ve found most people prefer not to be confrontational – even when the type of confrontation that I speak of is quite benign and can be done with compassion. Let me provide some examples.
Deflection Tactic – Shifting the Questions
Problem – In conversation you ask a person a serious question (perhaps about their desires for the future, goals, their vision), and they respond by asking you a question. One of my favorites was a client that would avoid questions by letting me know how great of a coach I was and she’d ask who my manager was so that she could pay kudos.
Strategy – Let them know you’d be happy to talk about that later. Right now you are interested in them. Ask the question again.
Deflection Tactic – Changing the Topic
Problem – You are speaking with a friend, co-worker, client etc and again you’ve got some important questions to ask. You’ve been trying to get a response on this topic for a while. When you ask, the response is a complete shift of topic with a light hearted overtone. Again a personal favorite of mine was a client that deflected to talking about the Minnesota Vikings no matter what the conversation we were having was related to.
Strategy – Confront them on what they are doing. What do you notice happens to our conversation each time that I bring up x,y,z? When given a question that confronts them on the act of what they are doing, it becomes very difficult to do more of the same (ie: my buddy above would have a tough time to ping me on whether I saw the Vikings game or not after asking that question!)
Deflection Tactic – The Joker
Problem – Each time you bring up an important topic ‘The Joker’ has a whitty simple and light hearted deflective joke as a response. They’ve often got a smile and make others smile around them – so they are a bit tougher to confront.
Stragety – Appeal to their kindness and refocus. One might say – that’s funny. I really appreciate your good nature and humor. Now if you don’t mind, this topic is really important to look at – talk to me about x,y,z.
Deflection Tactic – Excuses
Problem – You’ve tried to have a serious discussion with someone about a topic and every time you bring them up, rather than getting to the heart of the matter the deflector throws out excuses, they tell you their life story and they avoid what is important for you to discuss by saying we’ll get to that later.
Strategy – Listen, acknowledge and re-ask. The person that is avoiding a conversation by throwing out a number of excuses is overwhelmed and their priorities are not the same as yours. Typically they would be willing to have this conversation its just difficult for them to deal with what you are speaking about at this moment. They are letting you know indirectly that they need to be heard. They need support as well, so perhaps you can offer that support. Give them some space, let them vent, let them know you understand that things are difficult. Once you’ve allowed them to clear their thoughts, they may be willing to discuss the topic you are interested in discussing.