I was talking to my team member on an issue. He was putting in new statements every time I countered his previous statement.

I think I can't use "truth" for these statements because when I countered, then the previous and current statements were contradictory. "After-thoughts" would be right, maybe.

Our conversation looks like you keep peeling the onion to reach a core of onion (i.e., truth).


Me: Why you didn't do Task1

TM: I wasn't at my desk

Me: But you sent one email to 'X' where in I'm also in CC

TM: Because I need some more info on Task 1

Me: Then why are you telling me now?

TM: I got stuck in Fun-Friday activities in office

Is there an idiom/phrase for this situation?

  • 2
    No excuses, he just unfolds new truth. Example: Why you didn't do Task1> actually I wasnt at my desk > But you sent one email to 'X' where in I m also in CC> because 'Task1' I need some info>Then why you are telling me now>I got stuck in Fun-Friday activities in office and so on ... excuse me if it sounds funny.
    – paul
    Feb 13, 2017 at 16:01
  • 1
    Possibly relevant: ericberne.com/games-people-play/why-dont-you-yes-but. Article by Eric Berne, creator of Transactional Analysis
    – cobaltduck
    Feb 13, 2017 at 19:36
  • 1
    Are you looking for an established idiom, or would any brief, evocative phrasing satisfy? Feb 13, 2017 at 20:44
  • 1
    The person is not "dancing around" as she is not avoiding your question, rather using a series of "creative truths", thus she is "making up excuses" as she goes.
    – Vlad Z
    Feb 13, 2017 at 23:45
  • 2
    Considering there seems to be no evasion intended, I don't know of any idiom for what they're doing, but you could just say that "pulling the string" kept turning up more data. (That's from your side.) They're only answering the exact question you asked, rather than actually clearing up the mystery.
    – Wildcard
    Feb 14, 2017 at 0:27

12 Answers 12


You could say that your team member is dancing around the issue:

Dance around (the issue)

  • To improvise, tergiversate, etc, in order to avoid a question or issue.

Larson dances around the real issue of gun control.


To dance around the issue would be your team member coming up with different responses, that may or may not fit the question, just to avoid telling the truth.

  • 3
    I dunno about you, but I'd rather use "tergiversate", if only to make the person look it up.
    – anon
    Feb 14, 2017 at 1:57

TM was giving you the runaround ... "give someone the runaround". The Dictionary of American Slang. 13 Feb. 2017.

It's especially fitting for situations where someone is supposed to provide some service and they're trying to get out of doing so, by giving you the runaround.


Someone doing that is beating around the bush.


beat around the bush (and beat about the bush)
Fig. to avoid answering a question; to stall; to waste time.
Stop beating around the bush and answer my question.

McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs. © 2002 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.

To speak evasively or misleadingly, or to stall or waste time.
To flush pheasants and other birds so they could be shot, British gamekeepers hired beaters who would swing sticks at likely places where the birds might be lurking. Not to go directly to such foliage but to work around it instead gave the impression of wasting time or not trying very hard to raise the birds; hence, beating around the bush.

Endangered Phrases by Steven D. Price Copyright © 2011 by Steven D. Price

  • The problem with using "beat(ing) around the bush" is that it often implies a refusal to directly answer a question often by talking about tangential or even unrelated issues. However in this case the person is supplying simple answers, but not the whole answer.
    – Robert
    Feb 13, 2017 at 20:07

go around/round in circles
if you go round in circles when you are discussing something or trying to achieve something, you do not make any progress because you keep going back to the same subjects or the same problems. I need some more data to work on, otherwise I'm just going round in circles. We can't go round in circles all day - someone will have to make a decision. http://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/go+around+in+circles


I would simply say that he was or appeared to be answering evasively. If he was having a bad day and simply forgot then there was the appearance of evasiveness. However the longer such a conversation goes on the less likely it is an unintentional behavior. E.g. he may have forgotten to do something and was simply trying to avoid admitting that.


This seems to be a form of Moving the Goalposts. When evidence is presented to refute the original statement, a goalpost-mover makes a new claim. This can be repeated over and over, as each claim is shot down, a new one pops up to take its place. Eventually, it becomes clear that you're never going to get the real reason why Task1 hasn't been done. At that point, you give up on the conversation.


Tap dancer, He is doing the verbal tap dance.

Also he is deflecting the question,

These are particular traits of some cultures, not being able to admit task x was not completed is a sign of personal defect.

Depersonalising the issue is a better way to go : e.g. asking Did task 1 got done? What tasks did you spend your the time on? Separate the personal attribution (person being blamed for task 1 not being completed) from the person's activities.

Some people consider not having done all the tasks assign to them as a personal shortcoming, A team lead should put them at ease and not use the language to label them. If they are at ease then they communicate issues more immediately. It is better than having to interrogate them later for a post-mortem.

Language can used to make communicators, not tap dancers.


Another option might be to call what he did Trickle-Truthing. Generally this term is used to refer to confronting infidelity in a relationship, where one partner's interrogation tends to uncover one more layer of "truth" at a time.

Basically, this happens when someone is trying to give you a little morsel of "truth" at a time, hoping that will be enough to end the line of questioning, rather than being upfront with the whole story.


If previous answers weren't contradictory, you could say he was playing twenty questions with you.

From the Longman Dictionary (emphasis mine):

a game in which one person thinks of an object and others have to guess what it is by asking questions about it which can only be answered with ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. You sometimes mention the game when you think that someone is asking or making you ask too many questions


This definitely touches on psychology, since the conversation reads as a non sequitur; almost all of the meaning is created in the minds of the speakers (and in this case, the readers).

It reads as a way of staying out of trouble, perhaps based in insecurities; potentially disproportionate ideas about consequences. Losing your job for not doing your job certainly is a major consequence. I can see this diminishing as he feels more secure in his position and learns how you treat team members. In the meantime, he now knows that you follow his progress.

If he couldn't reasonably send the email (from that sender address) without being at his desk, he lied to you. By shifting to the reason for sending it, he's oblivious to, or hoping you'll accept as substitute, the abrupt change of subject. It serves a different and (perhaps) contradictory explanation why the job isn't done, valid or not.

His last answer might appear as the truth finally coming out, but it's preceded by a leading question. He may have given you, again, the answer you prematurely anticipate, in substitute for the real reason.

When someone is given a job that is new to him, there are many unknowns, so that the task can initially seem opaque. If he sent an email asking for information he needs to do his job, this is what you should take away from the conversation, not primarily tendencies to sidestep the conversation or shirk responsibility.


Sounds as though getting either work, or sense, out of him is Like Pulling Teeth

If something if like pulling teeth, it is very difficult, especially if trying to extract information or to get a straight answer from someone.

like pulling teeth

used to say that something is very difficult and frustrating.
eg. Getting him to make a decision is like pulling teeth.

In British English, for the situation described in the question, one might say 'getting him to tell me the whole story about why he didn't do the work was like pulling teeth'.

  • I'd be interested to know the reason for the downvote. if it is a matter of feeling I'm not adhering sufficiently to the the house rules for answering then I'd appreciate the heads-up. If it is that you disagree with the applicability of my suggestion, I'd be glad to discuss.
    – Spagirl
    Feb 15, 2017 at 15:42
  • How do you use "like pulling teeth" in a sentence? Never heard of this idiom.
    – paul
    Feb 16, 2017 at 6:57
  • @Paul, I've added the example from the MW link and added one relevant to the Question. Cheers for the input.
    – Spagirl
    Feb 16, 2017 at 10:48

Although TM’s second and third (and arguably “Non-Sequiturious”) excuses are separated and prompted by your astute follow-up questions/observations, I think TM’s “contributions” to the dialogue at issue can be viewed as three basically independent alternative excuses being offered in response to your initial question, and if the dialogue had occurred in a legal setting, I’d say that TM was engaging in the generally unacceptable practice of “shotgun pleading” at worst or, at best, the similar, yet more acceptable practice of “pleading in the alternative” or “alternative pleading.”

shotgun pleading (from Wiktionary)
(law) A legal complaint or an answer to a complaint which sets forth an excessive number of facts with no clear organization, and then asserts that those facts describe a cause of action or a defense.

Pleading in the alternative (from The Free Dictionary by Farlex)
a pleading that alleges facts so separate that it is difficult to determine which facts the person intends to rely on

See also, via Xmind, Black’s Law Dictionary’s definition of “shotgun pleading”:
“A pleading that encompasses a wide range of contentions, usu[ally] supported by vague factual allegations.”

And, for “alternative pleading”:

“A form of pleading whereby the pleader alleges two or more independent claims or defenses that are not necessarily consistent with each other, … .”

Although these precise legal terms don’t seem to have been widely extended to non-legal contexts, I think they would be understood outside the courtroom to describe what TM was doing.

Regardless, the somewhat similar use of “shotgun” (or “scattergun”) as an adjective does exist outside the courtroom, and although most frequently used to modify “approach,” I think it could be used here with “excuses” to describe TM’s reaction to your questions [and you could even consider mixing/combining it with the cited sense of the bracketed idiom], as follows:

“TM is just [shooting from the hip and] offering shotgun/scattergun excuses.”

Shotgun (from OxfordDictionaries.com)
Aimed at a wide range of things; having no specific target

Scattergun/Scattershot (from *Oxford Learner’s Dictionary)
referring to a way of doing or dealing with something by considering many different possibilities, people, etc. in a way that is not well organized

Shoot from the hip (from OxfordDictionaries.com)
React without careful consideration of one's words or actions:
‘he is shooting from the hip in an act of political desperation’

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.