When working in organisations with a very indoctrinated culture of bureaucracy (e.g. large organisations or government departments), it is not often to encounter people who are unable to think or respond outside a very limited range of trained behaviours.

A classic example is when you try to make enquiries about something, and the person repeatedly fails to address the actual question that you are asking because it falls outside the acceptable range of statements or keywords, and you end up with the same response no matter what the input is (not dissimilar to interacting with a poorly designed chatbot).

A one-way conversation might go something like this:

A: I would like to ask you about X

B: Sorry, I can't help you with that, you need to go somewhere else.

A: Okay, so can I ask you about Y

B: Sorry, I can't help you with that, you need to go somewhere else.

A: Okay, so what can you help me with? / Do you know who can help with X or Y?

B: I can't help you with X or Y.

What is an effective and socially acceptable way of trying to make this one-way conversations into something that can be more productive and a two-way conversation? Normally you would think of asking for the manager but that seems to present a weak veil of politeness with a lot of threat behind it.

  • 2
    what is your relationship to the organization and person B? do you have a manager? Do you have coworkers? Does B have a manager? Oct 19, 2018 at 1:01
  • 1
    From the title I expected this to be about people who talk but don't give you a chance to respond. The last two responses are weird but do you think person B is lying when they say they can't help you?
    – BSMP
    Oct 19, 2018 at 2:09
  • 1
    I'm a bit confused. Are you A in this example? If so, why would you ask unhelpful questions like "Okay, so what can you help me with" rather than helpful ones like "Do you know who can help me with X?" or the like? Oct 19, 2018 at 3:33
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    Why do you believe that B or even B's manager should be able to help you with X or Y? If you've asked HR how to fix the printer, it's not their fault they don't know, it's your fault for asking the wrong person. Oct 19, 2018 at 5:04
  • 1
    Maybe the NPC doesn't have that response programmed in. They updated your quest and you should speak to another NPC. Or keep trying to get the easter-egg after clicking the dialog 1000 times
    – rath
    Oct 19, 2018 at 11:30

3 Answers 3


From your comment:

regardless of whether I think the person is lying or not, the objective is to try and elicit a response that will help with the enquiry one way or another

You can't get blood out of a stone.. if they don't know anything that can help you..they don't know anything that can help you.

And no amount of badgering them, or carefully crafted sentences, or wishful thinking for that matter is going to change that.

  • Sometimes it is probably best to know when you should give up :D Oct 19, 2018 at 14:51

I am assuming that this question is you asking a co-worker something and they continually give you non-answers.

Step 1: ask in writing, not face to face. They may have issues thinking at the drop of a hat, and require a bit more time to reflect. This also gives you a paper trail. If they don't respond, go to them and ask if they've seen your e-mail, or that they respond to it. If you never get responses, bring it up with their manager, because it is impacting your work.

Step 2: Be specific. If you come up to a developer and say you have a question about Java, they may be nervous about answering because they aren't an expert. However, if you ask about a specific detail about Java, they'll be more likely to respond.

Step 3: If possible, say WHY you need to ask them and not someone else. Saying "I would like to ask you about the Barns report" is more intimidating and frankly scary than "I would like to ask you about the Cost Estimate on the Barns report, because I know you wrote that part of it and are well versed in it." Sure, it may be over information, but it may be necessary for the individual to feel comfortable claiming he knowledge that you seek.

Step 4: If the previous steps fail, bring it up to that person's manager. Never directly speak with an individual about this, because you may accidentally upset the person, which could make them be MORE intimidated about answering future questions (if that's the problem), or they could accuse you of bullying. This is why managers exist.

Hopefully that helps.

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    I was thinking about dealing with customer service people in government department settings, but I suppose the question (and answer) is equally valid in this scenario as well. Oct 19, 2018 at 14:51

General solution in such situation would be:

find somebody else who can be helpful

That doesn't mean you only can ask someone else about your problem. You can seek help in asking the question:

You: Hey, do you know how I can get X within the context of Y?

Bob: Mmm, I think Alice on 5th can help you. But the X is actually called Z when in context of Y, so try asking about both things.

This process is linear: you can go around asking people all day long. You might get lucky, and Bob could say something like:

Mhh, I don't know who can help you. But maybe Jane knows who would help you out.

If you really in trouble, you will have to ask your brother (Bob), mother (Bob), or third-sister-in-law-twice-removed (also named Bob)

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