3 Ways to Handle Difficult Questions Confidently 

Why do people ask difficult questions? 

  • They need the information 
  • They want attention from the group 
  • They want to look smart 
  • They use the questions to influence and persuade 
  • They want to intimidate 
  • Because it’s culturally appropriate 
  • They want to challenge the presenter 
  • They want to make the presenter look unprepared/foolish/dumb 
  • Questions are safer to ask than providing answers 
  • They want to be disruptive 
  • They want to change the subject 
  • They want to give their opinion indirectly 

Dealing with difficult questions: 

Questions are a normal part of most business meetings. It is also normal for questions to be somewhat confusing or unclear.  When a question as well intended as it may be, is either confusing or unclear, here are 3 Ways to Handle Difficult Questions Confidently.

      • Restate– In restating the question, you are not adding any new information and you are using a neutral tone. This is really important. Adding new information does not always mean new words. Many times meaning can be changed with tone and inflection. Also restating does not mean “parroting” the information. When this technique is done well, the listener repeats the essence of the message with no judgment, emotion, or opinion implied. It’s much easier said than done. It’s most challenging in an emotionally loaded conversation where it is a powerful and effective technique.
    • Disclaiming – Many times people are fearful to give an answer because they want to have the right answer. “I don’t know” won’t really get you very far in business communication so framing your answer can help. There are phrases which act as a disclaimer so you don’t say “I don’t know.” Here are some examples:
        • Providing the economy doesn’t’ worsen, we can pay the accounts on time. 
        • I’m not an expert on unsecured securities however it seems to me that…. 
        • I am not privy to all of the data, however based on what I do have…
    • Prepare for the worst – Most of us do know prior to a meeting or conversation what question we fear the most to be asked of us. Think about the mindset of your listener…what’s most important to them? What motivates them? (See the list at the top.) Next, think about your presentation. Are there obvious targets for questions? Prepare and practice your response to those questions. If the question is inevitable, it should be incorporated into the presentation from the beginning instead of simply hoping it won’t be asked.

Identifying the REAL Question 

Sometimes people ask a question just to ask a question. They want to look like they are smart or that they are participating but they don’t necessarily care about the real answer. Many a presenter has derailed their message and lost their audience by taking a question like this too seriously.   

How do you know if it is a valid question? It’s valid if the asker genuinely is interested in the reply and needs the information. Answer with a clarifying question, one that shows concern but forces the asker to clarify what they are asking. 

Q: Why do we have to use Pantone 322 for all company letterhead?” 

A: “Are you asking why consistent branding is important or is your question about the reason for choosing color #322?” 

Or, maybe you know that the person asking is seeking attention or trying to sabotage you. In that case try this approach: Be rubber. That means whatever they say bounces off you and sticks to them. 

Q :“So what would happen if you stuck a fork in the toaster when it was unplugged, then you plugged it in?” 

A:  I’m not sure Bob, why don’t you try it and send us an email with the results?” 

Next question!  

Another technique is answering a question with a question:

Q: “So what would happen if you stuck a fork in the toaster when it was unplugged, then you plugged it in?” 

A: “What do you think might happen?” (Watch your tone) 

A:  “Can you give me an example of your concern to help me clearly understand your question?”  This is a good ‘go to’ answer. 

Nothing is more important than conveying confidence when you give an answer. Consider these two examples: 

Employee #1 has done all the research and is certain that they have the right recommendations for actions. During their presentation, the CEO asks a question. The employee has the facts, but is very nervous and his voice shakes. His answer is framed in tentative language. What happens next? More questions, maybe lots of them. Requests for substantiation, more work and possibly the recommendations are ignored. 

Employee #2 hasn’t done research but has a hunch about where the company should go. When he is asked a question he confidently gives a well articulated response. The busy CEO is most likely satisfied or asks some follow-up but doesn’t cross examine. 

Ideally you are the well-prepared employee and effective communicator! While we can’t make you knowledgeable in your profession we can help you communicate that knowledge with confidence.

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