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Dealing with Tough Questions

October 24, 2014 by Dr. Jon Warner in Presentation Skills

Dealing with Tough Questions

Some questions are very easy to answer and we simply take them in our stride. But this is not always the case, especially when an individual is in a leadership position. We therefore need to be better prepared or mentally ready to answer tough questions that may be put to us from time to time.

Although we can’t predict what questions we may be asked in detail, or how “tough” they may be, we can think about the different business stakeholders that may be interested in asking questions and then at the kind of questions that they may be interested in putting in response to any particular communication or presentation. Once we have done this, our best approach is then to be as prepared as possible in our approach. To help do this, in the list that follows are 10 handling strategies that you may draw upon to deal with almost any tough question that might be asked:

1. Establish the Question-asking Ground-rules

You can help yourself greatly with potentially difficult questions simply by establishing the ground-rules for questions at the outset.  For example, you can ask people to table questions in advance (not always possible but sometimes critical), get them to wait until the end of a talk, only ask one question at a time, and/or stay on topic as much as possible. The point here is to gain as much control as you can at the beginning. 

2. Take time to Reflect

Even though the person presenting the information often knows that a question is a difficult one to answer, many people try to answer too quickly and miss the chance to think or reflect for a few seconds. To buy time to do this you can repeat the question so everyone can hear or even paraphrase the question and ask the question-asker if that’s a fair summary. It’s also possible in some cases to throw the question open to the audience to buy time, asking “Does anyone here have any experience with that issue or challenge?” 

3. Compliment the Questioner

Although you always have to take care to be fair and even-handed to all, if someone asks a genuinely well-crafted question, even if it is tough to answer you can complement them on asking it (and buy yourself a few seconds of course). You can even say things like “I’m glad you asked that” or “thanks for asking that question because I forgot to raise something else that I think is relevant here” etc. 

4. Avoid getting defensive (and even embarrassing the questioner).

It’s tempting to become defensive when a question is put in a critical or a forthright manner but it is far better to remain calm, open and as non-defensive as possible and to offer a thoughtful answer in a measured way. It is also critical not to attack the question-asker or to try to embarrass them with an answer, even if it’s something like “didn’t I cover that?” or “that’s irrelevant to this discussion”. This often backfires badly with the rest of the audience who may either think it’s better to say nothing (which is not what you want) or ask even tougher questions to bait the presenter further. 

5. Defend your points and ideas, rather than yourself.

Some question-askers have their own agenda or want to get their own ideas across and may attack the presenter to do this (in gentle and not so gentle ways). This may even descend into personal comments such as “there’s no truth in that statement” or “I think you’ve missed the key point here” or even “you’ve clearly not done your homework” etc. In these circumstances, it is important to remember that the questioner (at least the vast majority of the time) is questioning your ideas and not you personally and as such, the response should be to defend your points not to get personally defensive. 

6. Answer a Question with a Question where necessary

Although we should try to respond to a tough question with a straight-forward answer, the question may be too tough or will lead you to places where you don’t want to go. In such circumstances, a common and acceptable response is to answer a question with a question and thereby distract the question-asker. You can also say, that’s an interesting question but I think a better question is…. This gives control back to the presenter and allows the conversation to be steered to “safer waters”. 

7. Reverse the question and re-pitch your main points or ideas.

In many cases, it is possible to reverse a tough question in order to not only gain more time to deal with it but  to increase your chances as a presenter to re-pitch one or more of your main points in the communication. For example, a question asker might say: “Will this all be done within a 12 month time-frame?” This question can be reversed by saying in response “Are there any tasks in what I have described that you think may take longer than a year?” Even if a question-asker suggests one or two in their opinion you can then respond specifically on the now narrower agenda and re-state the wider points you may wish to stress (in a slightly different way as you wish). 

8. Provide a Parallel Answer

Another useful response to a tough question is to answer the question asked briefly but then go on to provide a parallel answer on a point that is related but more concerned with something you wish to clarify as the presenter. For example, to the question, “What will be the expected budget for the project?” a respondent can say “We are working to lock down the detailed budget in the next 2 weeks but what I can say is that we will be spending more money this year than last, especially on items such as …..” 

9. Defer to the Expert when necessary

Sometimes a question (and especially a very technical one) is outside of a communicator’s realm of knowledge or direct area of expertise. In such cases, the best approach is to admit to being no expert in that realm but say that you will try to get back to the question-answer afterwards. 

10. Raise objections and known difficulties proactively.

If you are aware that some attendees in the audience are opposed to your ideas or subject and are likely to raise negative questions, it is always wise to raise as many of the known objections as you can in your pitch or talk. By covering these key known objections ahead of time, you can be measured and head off a negative question before it is asked and even say, “As I already suggested in my presentation…” 

Summary

No individual can possibly know the answer to everything but he or she can prepare well in advance. Successfully answering tough questions is therefore more about how you handle yourself personally and not so much about what you know. These strategies will help you to do that and you can therefore draw upon several of them to help build your credibility and confidence.

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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at OptimalJon@gmail.com

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Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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