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July 01, 2011

Training Tip 13: Handling Difficult Questions

Many presenters dread the challenge of dealing with hostile or otherwise difficult questions. Some questioners have a personal agenda, or simply enjoy showing up a presenter. I make no claim to being an expert instructor, but with experience, I eventually came to enjoy the challenge of dealing with difficult questioners. My experience convinced me that the presenter who stays calm and remembers a few simple rules can nearly always hold his own, or better, in such encounters.

Approach the task with confidence. Let the audience see you are confident and calm. If you become defensive or argumentative it tends to legitimize the hostile questioner. The audience will tend to side with you if you remain gracious and polite.

Treat even aggressive/hostile questioners respectfully. A response like this will often work wonders: "Thank you for expressing your view [so articulately (if that is true)]. I know that others have come to different conclusions on this issue. I am telling you what has worked for me [or most people, if that is true]."

Give ground when appropriate. If there is some validity to the questioner's position, acknowledge it readily. For example, if someone is complaining about the time needed to compile records for financial disclosure purposes, acknowledge that it can be a burden. Failure to acknowledge the obvious will cause you to look out of touch or unreasonable. However, be firm in defending the ground you can and must defend.

Direct your attention appropriately. Treat the questioner like the most important person in the world while he is speaking, but through body language and eye contact, direct your response to the group as a whole, not the questioner. When I was a prosecutor, I directed most of my effort toward the audience that mattered most--the jury. Many questioners have a chip on their shoulder, and nothing you say will satisfy them. Direct your attention toward the audience that matters.

Prepare for predictable difficult questions. Sometimes you can predict troublesome questions and plan a response. In this situation, it may be attractive to preempt the question by raising it yourself during your presentation. This can take the sting from the issue. Alternatively, you can wait till the question and answer period.

For important presentations, or ones I will be giving multiple times, I sometimes prepare slides to assist in answering the most important questions I anticipate. Wasted effort if no one asks the question?  Sure, but when you happen to have just the right slide for just the right question, it can make a palpable impression on an audience. Knowing you have just the right slide in reserve is a big confidence builder as well.

Offer to meet with the questioner after the presentation. This will discourage troublemakers who crave the attention of the audience.

Use a strategic pause. Some presenters have been known to gain a little extra time to compose themselves or prepare to answer a particularly difficult question by getting some water or referring to their notes.

Consider the use of question forms. Finally, the practice of providing "live" answers only to written questions (discussed in Training Tip 10) is a powerful technique for dealing with questioners who have an agenda. You can answer at the public meeting only the questions you want to answer, and reserve questions with an agenda for post-meeting follow-up. Establishing this policy and sticking to it is a powerful way of positioning yourself when hostile questions are expected.

Empathy + Objectivity

My "ultimate weapon" was what I call the Empathy + Objectivity formula. It works like this:

Step 1: Begin your answer by identifying with the questioner's emotional condition. "It is only natural that anyone in your position would feel that way ..."

Step 2: Conclude your answer by providing an objective assessment of the situation.

For example, assume that someone in the audience attacks the requirement to file financial disclosure forms as an unwarranted intrusion into privacy. You might respond something like this:

I understand why people might feel that way. However, Congress created the Office of Government Ethics to establish a uniform approach, and this is what OGE came up with. It's a known condition of government employment, and if we want to work for the Executive Branch, we have to deal with it.


Corrected July 5: Replaced missing word "always" in first para.

Provide your suggestions and examples in the Comments section below. Biographical information about our Training Tips columnist is available.

Posted by J. Lawson in Training Tips | Permalink


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