Handling Difficult Questions and Questioners
with Eloquence and Ease
By Craig Harrison
Does your job place you on the front line or firing line? Are you forever on the hot seat? Are you forced to handle difficult questions from difficult questioners?
In today's litigious environment you've got to know what to say, what not to say, and how to say it...or not! Your ability to think, listen and speak on your feet could save your job, your boss's, or your company's reputation. Are you ready when pressed into service?
Whether you're in investor relations, customer service or technical support you're often expected to dance through verbal minefields. Say the wrong thing and you may never recover from the damage. But how does one know what to say, what not to say, and how to avoid escalating hostilities when the going gets tough?
With mental and physical preparation you can handle the most difficult questions and questioners with ease and eloquence. Understanding some basic strategies can help you think on your feet, speak on your feet, and avoid putting your feet into your mouth. By understanding your responsibilities and options you'll be better able to handle difficult questions and difficult questioners with ease and aplomb.
It is a given you will encounter tough questions, tough questioners and hostile audiences. Your responses can either disarm or antagonize them, depending on your preparation, coolness under pressure, and understanding of human dynamics. Here are some mental strategies to employ when faced with difficult questions or questioners
Prepare answers for the questions you may encounter. Spend time anticipating the most likely or troubling questions and fashion your response ahead of time. It's OK to pause before delivering a prepared response in impromptu fashion.
Gauge Your Audience Prior to & During Your Presentation
Know their educational level, disposition, political orientation, etc. Monitor their reactions to others. Are they restless, antagonistic, confused, angry? Put yourself in the shoes of the questioner: are they fearful, pained, feeling taken advantage of, ill-informed or misinformed? Consider their motivation in asking their question. That will help you understand what will soothe, salve or satisfy the questioner
Diffuse Hostile Questions By Answering Them Before They're Asked!
Disarm your opponents by anticipating and answering their questions in your own remarks before they pose them to you. You've just taken the wind out of their sails. You've quelled their fire, and appeased them prior to their challenging you. Then, if a hostile question persists, you can refer them back to your previous remarks, or inform them theit question has already been answered, and move on to new questions
Set Expectations, Ground Rules and Protocol
You can announce that questions will be taken at the end, that they must be submitted in writing, or that they must pertain to a certain subset of topics. You can also defer some questions smoothly if you pre-announce your limited expertise in certain areas. When challenging questions on those topics ensue, remind them those are outside the scope of your expertise...but that someone appropriate can respond to them (later). Defer to experts on your team. DO NOT speak out of your area of expertise. You will lose points and credibility. Instead, gain points by knowing your limitations and not speaking beyond them
Restate the Question to Your Liking
Their question may be problematic, a two-part question, or one that leads you down a path you don't want to go. Put your best spin on it by modifying it when you restate it, removing charged language, then answering with the message you wish to share
Turn the Tables
You can answer hostile questions with your own questions such as: Why do you ask? Please identify yourself, your company, qualifications and reason for asking? Alternately, you can ask, "what do you mean by that?
Avoid Escalating Hostilities
Try to either empathize with the questioner or find some common ground. In a group situation you will appear to be more sympathetic and a hostile questioner will appear to be the problematic one
Don't Take it Personally...and Don't Tolerate Personal Attacks
Separate the message from the messenger. Don't take it personally even if the question hits close to home. But, recognize that ad hominid attacks (attacks against your person) are deemed out of bounds. Label them as such and refuse to tolerate them. Stick to the facts and insist that personalities be ignored.
Situations abound when we're forced into impromptu speaking situations. Just because you're speaking extemporaneously doesn't mean you can't prepare yourself. Here are some basic physical tips to employ when you speak "off the cuff" in business situations:
Oftentimes when we feel pressure we tighten up. Breathing brings vital oxygen to the brain, and calms you and your body, and also relaxes your voice and your vocal chords
When you smile you loosen your jaw, reassure yourself and also relax your audience, predisposing them to receive you better and letting them know you're in control and confident. You shouldn't smirk or laugh, since you want and need to be taken seriously. Yet tensing up and furrowing your brow will only induce more tension
Think before speaking. There's often a tendency to speak first...DON'T! Collect yourself and your thoughts. You're entitled to reflect before to speaking. Don't shoot from the hip. Take careful aim before speaking. We're conditioned to avoid silence at all costs, yet skilled negotiators know of the value of a pregnant pause. It's prudent to pause, underlying the care with which you're weighing the question and your response. It's a sign of respect that you pause to consider the question, even if you know the answer and have given it many times before
Eye contact helps your persuasiveness and ability to engage an audience, whether one or many. Use it to lock in different parts of the room, or to address the questioner directly. In our society looking someone in the eye reinforces our honesty and sincerity. It's a sign of respect which can help diffuse mistrust or distrust.
This is done through body language, your delivery, posture, assuredness. Take control of the situation. Speak with authority. Deliver your message calmly and thoughtfully. Speak in measured sentences.
Strong Opening Statement:
The best way to establish yourself as an authority or knowledgeable about your topic is to begin from a position of strength. It's your one chance to make your first impression.
Don't be over-ambitious. Make two or three points only. Enumerate them if possible. Just as in a prepared speech, offer an opening-body-conclusion structure. Give your overview, make your key points, and summarize.
Empathize with the questioner, Acknowledge their point, and only then Respond to it. This lets them know they were heard and understood
Know when to stop. Be succinct. Better to say too little then say too much!
With practice comes confidence. Consider joining a Toastmasters club or other organization which gives you experience speaking extemporaneously in low-stakes situations. There you can try out different techniques and observe others' speaking styles.