How to Handle Tough Questions

It comes as no surprise that one survey after another continue to show that one of our biggest fears is public speaking. The overarching fear of public speaking is made up of a number of components, or sub-fears, such as the fear of forgetting your content, making an embarrassing mistake, and handling difficult or tough questions.

We at Communispond posted a polling question on our LinkedIn page asking: What is your biggest fear when it comes to public speaking and/or presenting? Here are the choices with the results:

LinkedIn Poll

The majority fear the dreaded Q&A session, which is totally understandable! If someone is asking a question, it’s natural to feel you failed to cover an important point in your presentation or maybe you didn’t address that question in your presentation because you don’t know the answer!

So here are some tips to help you handle even the toughest questions with confidence and poise.

When faced with tough questions, resist the urge to get combative or confrontational. Instead, get to the heart of the issue and take the opportunity to make your point as to why what you’re proposing is beneficial. For example, if someone asks (with a great deal of attitude behind it), “If this is such a great idea, why didn’t you propose this sooner and prevent the last round of lay-offs?” Diffuse the attitude by rephrasing to the issue. Your rephrase might be, “Why are we proposing this now and how will this affect staffing?” Another way to rephrase it might be, “Why now and why couldn’t we do it before?”

Another example of a tough question people often hear is, “How do you expect to pay for this outrageous budget you’ve proposed?” One way to rephrase this question is, “Where will the money come from?” Another rephrase could be, “How will we fund this?”

The key to handling tough questions is to take the emotion or opinion out of the question without changing the issue. The speaker is responsible for the issue—he/she is NOT responsible for the emotion or opinion expressed within the question by the questioner. When we hear emotion or opinion in a question, we tend to get defensive and often argumentative. Both sides feel they’re under attack, so they dig in their heels and quit listening to the other person’s position and reasons for that position.

A tip on how not to get caught up in the emotion or opinion is to focus on listening for the interrogative or question word. Question words such as, how, can, should, will, did, who, what, why, when, will lead you to the real issue being raised. As we’ve seen time after time, questioners often preface their questions with statements, comments, or opinions before they get around to asking the actual question. For example, “It has been said your department doesn’t care about cost overruns. (Statement/opinion). How do we know you’ll stay within budget on this project?” (Actual question).

Remember: listen for the issue, not the emotion

For more information on handling challenging questions, check out Communispond’s suite of presentation skills programs and Executive Communication Coaching.


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