Tackling Tough Questions
During a Q & A
By Dianna Booher
ever watched a colleague wrap up a fabulous meeting, field a few
questions with flair, and then, just as they’re ready to wrap up,
you see another hand waving from the end of the board room. “So,
Bob, everything you’ve said so far makes sense, but could you
explain how this protocol could have been effective with that
situation in production last week?” Unprepared for this curve ball,
you watch as Bob stammers and stutters next to his pie charts, with
an incoherent ramble that turns an otherwise star performance into a
speaking is a common fear among those in the business sector for
good reason. No one likes to be peppered with questions for which
they are unprepared. What’s a major key to minimizing that fear?
a few practical tips for preparing for question-and-answer periods,
particularly when you expect difficult questions from skeptics.
Hypothetical: Often when people ask a hypothetical question,
they have an agenda—they are looking for a forum to express their
own opinion. Whatever answer you give will be “wrong,” and they will
change the details about their hypothetical situation and proceed to
set you straight about what will or will not work.
Sidestep the Details: Refocus by responding, “There are so many
unknowns and variables in hypothetical cases that it’s difficult to
give a meaningful response to that situation.” Or: “I prefer to stay
focused on the current mission in formulating policy for our
charitable contributions. For the present situation, I still
consider. . . .”
Probe for the Real Issue and Address That Concern: Examples: “Is
your concern in raising that question the safety issue?” If the
audience member confirms that the safety issue is what prompted the
hypothetical situation, then you can proceed to comment in general
on the safety issue rather than getting bogged down in hypothetical
Show-Off: Generally, this “question” is a monologue—either an
opinion or a barrage of data. Then, after the dump, the asker tacks
on a limp question at the end, such as “Wouldn’t you agree?”
Call for the Question: Example: “Would you please restate your
question?” or “Were you just stating an observation, or is that a
question?” After some fumbling, the participant may or may not come
up with a question that you can answer briefly and use to regain
Acknowledge the “Comment” and Move On: Examples: “Thank you for
that observation.” “Good information to have.” “You sound as though
you’ve had some experience with similar situations.” “I’m sure
others may feel as you do.” “That’s something else we may want to
consider in the decision.” Break eye contact, and move on.
Hostile: People ask hostile questions for any number of
reasons: (1) They disagree with what you have said or have wrong
information. (2) You have not established credibility with them. (3)
They have misunderstood you. (4) They think they are “saving the
day” for their organization. (5) Their personality makes them always
look for the cloud in every silver lining. (6) They have a hostile
tone and facial expression without realizing it. (7) They are angry
with someone else and are taking it out on you—consciously or
unconsciously. (8) Their question is neutral, but you have had a bad
day and are “reading hostility into the question.”
Rephrase a Legitimate Question Minus the Hostile Tone: If the
question is, “Why are you demanding six years of experience for all
subcontracted work? I think that’s totally unreasonable,” rephrase
it: “Why do we think six years’ experience is necessary? Well, first
of all. . . .” Don’t feel that you have to refute an opposing view
in great detail, particularly if the hostile view is not well
supported. Simply comment: “No, I don’t think that’s the case.” No
elaboration is necessary. Your answer will sound authoritative and
will make the asker appear rude and argumentative if he or she
rephrases and continues. Avoid matching hostility with hostility.
Acknowledge and Accept Feelings: By acknowledging and
legitimizing the feelings of the asker, you may defuse the hostility
and help him or her receive your answer in a more open manner.
Examples: “It sounds as though you’ve been through some difficult
delays with this supplier” or “I don’t blame you for feeling as you
do, given the situation you describe.”
Agree with Something the Questioner Has Stated: If
possible, try to find something within the hostile question with
which you can agree. This typically diffuses some of the inclination
to argue with whatever response you provide. Then give your answer.
expect virtually every high-level presentation to include a Q & A
session as part of the agenda. This is not something to fear—think
of it as just one more component for which to prepare and to use to
win over your audience. By learning these Q & A tips you’re already
ahead of the game.
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about Dianna Booher.
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