How to handle difficult questions

No one can answer every question that’s thrown at them. Here are 4 ways to handle tricky questions – and/or tricky questioners…

Let’s face it: no matter how much of an expert you are, there’ll always be times when you get asked a question you can’t answer.

Sometimes it’s not so much the question that’s difficult as the questioner. We all know what it’s like to get a curveball from someone who is trying to catch you out, assert their seniority, or who just likes to be heard a lot.

But that’s all OK – it’s just as human to want to show off one’s knowledge as it is to not know everything about a topic. And though we talk about ‘difficult questions’, really questions are only difficult if the presenter displays signs of discomfort.

Using these 4 techniques will help you handle such questions – and sometimes the people attached to them as well…

1. Step INTO the question

If we feel someone is stumbling or struggling with an answer, we’ll often say they’ve been ‘caught on the back foot’.

This cricketing metaphor can happen literally in presentations too, as we see a speaker physically stepping away from a difficult question. Whether we know it consciously or not, as animals we sense this movement as a retreat – as if the speaker feels under attack and is expecting another difficult question. Inevitably they will start to sound and look defensive.

Instead, try literally stepping INTO the difficult question. The physical gesture of moving forwards gives an unconscious signal to the questioner that the speaker is engaging with the question, even if the response is simply: ‘Good question! I don’t have the answer right now, but I’ll gladly look into it and get something over to you as soon as I can.’

2. Use eye contact

When we look at each other, we signal with our eyes that we are ready to engage in conversation. The same is true when we are presenting and someone asks a question – we look at that person as they ask their question, and show we are ready to respond.

Sometimes you may need to curtail one questioner from dominating the whole proceedings, however. When responding to someone like that who’s being difficult or simply over-enthusiastic, consider 2 things:

a) Direct your answer to the entire audience, not just the person who asked the question. It shows respect for everyone sitting and listening to you.

b) If you want to discourage someone from coming back with yet another question, rest your eyes away from them as you finish your answer. This may well feel counter-intuitive, but the person will not notice if you have given them eye contact during your response. And without that final eye contact, it’ll be much harder for them to jump back in with yet another question.

3. Find some common ground

There will always be occasions where sometimes puts a point to us that we fundamentally disagree with, with the risk that our answer could create tension or bring us into conflict with the person who asked it.

In these situations, supplement eye contact with the acknowledgement of some common ground. Find something within the question or comment that you can agree with: this demonstrates that you've fully heard the question, and also makes it easier for you to introduce your counterpoint.

You could also practise listening to other people's arguments to see where you can find agreement, e.g. I may not agree with fox hunting, but during a discussion with a pro-hunter I could preface my points by agreeing that foxes kill livestock and that fox hunting is a traditional sport etc.

4. Learn from an expert

Here is Steve Jobs in 1997 masterfully employing all of the techniques described above to deal with a difficult and somewhat aggressive question from the audience…

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