Dealing with Difficult Questions
– How to Respond with Confidence and Flair
We have all been in the same situation before – a tough question flies your way, and you find yourself stumped, unable to respond. The common reaction is to panic, spend a considerable amount of time crafting an answer and botch the chance to look confident. The common scenario communicators face may not necessarily be your traditional presentation on stage. Most of the time, your high-stakes communication settings may take the form of face-to-face interaction. When this is the case, your window of opportunity may be extremely narrow.
Even without opening your mouth to respond, your facial expression and body language cues may betray a lack of confidence. I have seen clients reacting to difficult questions during practice conversations by frowning, adopting closed hand gestures or even avoiding eye contact. Almost all of them concede that these were manifestations of their lack of confidence in their ability to answer. Your goal, when faced with a tough question, is to craft and deliver a detailed and convincing answer to instill confidence.
Mastery of your content is still the key to respond to difficult questions. In any case, here are some quick tips that will help you out in your high-stakes presentation settings!
Tip #1: Don’t Panic – Think About The Answer Instead
Panicking is the most painful starting point, especially when you are not sure about how to answer a difficult question. The fear or anxiety stemming from your struggle may cloud your thought processes and hinder your chances of arriving at a credible response. Instead, taking a short pause to digest, unpack and evaluate the question thrown to you may give you that much-needed breathing space to respond confidently. Changing from a panic mindset to a thinking mindset may also help you modify your facial/body language cues. For example, instead of frowning or fidgeting, you would want to appear as though you are deep in thought.
One important feedback I received during my training as a lawyer was the need to make the questioner feel appreciated. As law students, we were told not to rush for an answer. Instead, take some time to digest and unpack the question given to you. Your questioner will feel as though you are dedicating your efforts to provide the most genuine and best answer for them, rather than rushing for a sloppy response. Ultimately, it is acceptable to take a pause to stop your panic and navigate the question!
Tip #2: Try Again – Reframe, Clarify and Analyse the Question
The fastest answers may not necessarily be the best answers. Sometimes, answering under time pressure or without complete information may do more harm than good. Instead of pushing yourself, try to extract some thinking space to respond. One way of buying some time is to reframe or seek a clarification of the question. If there was a term used or an assumption underlying the question, you might clarify the same with the questioner to make sure that you have the same understanding. For example:
Question: Is your company willing to accept a joint-venture arrangement with a 50-50% split in shares?
Reframe/Clarify: That is a good question, can I just quickly clarify what you mean by a joint-venture arrangement? (e.g equal contribution of capital injection or just a sleeping partner? Technology transfer? Bearing costs together or not?)
Beyond giving you the space to craft your answer, this also ensures that you are on the same page with the questioner. In particular, you would want to avoid misunderstandings, especially in a high-stakes setting. Your objective is to analyse the question and break it down into its components. Ask yourself if you need to clarify any particular concept or term before you answer and give yourself that same opportunity to prepare accordingly.
Tip #3: Retreat – But Don’t Surrender!
As a last resort, it may be more advantageous to have a strategic retreat than to panic in the face of your tough question. Retreating does not mean surrendering – you are postponing the answer to the question and not ignoring it completely. There are three steps you should remember, especially when planning your “retreat”:
- First, acknowledge the question and its significance. You should avoid giving the impression that you are refusing to answer the question completely or belittling the query raised. Appreciate the reasons behind why the question is asked or your questioner’s interest.
- Second, give a reason for your retreat. For example, if the question requires you to verify certain facts or statistics, you may explain this to the questioner. You can also provide him/her the reassurance that you are just trying to derive the best/most accurate answer.
- Third, always remember to follow up with the question. Avoid unnecessary delays in responding as this may affect your credibility. Instead, aim to deliver the answer as soon as possible to the questioner, especially after you have verified what you needed to.
It goes without saying that this should be a last resort measure. This technique should only apply if you encounter a complicated or particularly difficult question to deal with on the spot. Buying yourself some time may make you look more professional!
*Probably except this question – “Will you marry me?”*
Any Final Questions?
On a final note, difficult questions are not meant to make your life difficult (surprisingly!). Most of the time, the questioner has a legitimate interest or concern behind his/her question. Instead of shying away or projecting a lack of confidence, aim to manoeuvre around these questions with confidence and flair. With the techniques above, we hope that you will be able to deal with those pesky questions!
Our public speaking program doesn’t just provide actionable techniques that can be applied on large platforms but even interpersonal communication settings; let us help you enhance your child’s effective communication skills today!
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