Handling Nasty Questions from Nasty People

We have probably all been on the receiving end of it or have been a witness to it. The presentation is completed, after which come the questions; some are fact finding, some seek clarification, while some are just plain nasty.

Perhaps the questioner is not trying to be mean, but the result is the same. All eyes in the room burn a hole into you as everyone waits to see how you are going to handle this little Scud missile that is thinly disguised as a question.

Some presenters splutter, nervousness sapping intellectual and verbal powers, while some give such a pathetic response we can see their credibility sail out the window as they speak. Some get angry, assuring everyone there that they are not fit for higher responsibilities because they can’t control their emotions.

Do these questions come up? Yes, so there is no point imagining that we won’t have to face the meeting room moment of truth.

Do we usually prepare beforehand, in the event that someone might decide to go after us? In 99% of cases the answer is “no”. The Scud catches us off guard and we simply flounder.

This is a challenge that easily can be fixed. Below are a few steps that will trounce your rivals, diminish your adversaries, and show everyone what a true professional you are.

Most preparation prior to any presentation generally focuses on the content and not the delivery. Taking questions, by the way, is part of the delivery and not something tacked on to the main proceedings. When preparing a speech or presentation, we are in control of the direction. However, once the questions start raining down, sadly, we are no longer in command of the situation.

The first step before the meeting is to imagine what trouble may lie ahead. Who will be in the room? Who has a vested interest in seeing you go down in flames? Who are the potential troublemakers and their acolytes, possibly beavering away at creating problems for you? What have been some of the historical issues between your section and other parts of the organisation? Will there be someone in the room still smarting over you getting his or her money for last year’s project? What are some of the current burning issues that have a lot of money or prestige attached to them that would invite someone to slice you up in front of the assembled masses?

Having identified the issues that are likely to become “hot” during the questioning period, let’s design some positive messages.

Henry Kissinger, former US secretary of state, gave a great piece of advice once when announcing at a press conference, “Who has questions for the answers I have ready for you?” It is an amusing question, but also very smart.

Rather than moving straight into damage control, which can often appear weak, squeamish, shifty and dishonest, go on to the front foot and put forward a strong positive message about the benefits of what you are proposing. Have at least two or three of these ready for each issue that you have designated as potential trouble.

As a side note, be aware of your body language when doing this. Albert Mehrabian’s book, Silent Messages, has become well known for noting the disconnection between what we say and how we say it. If the two don’t match up, your message (your actual words) get lost, while 93% of everyone’s attention is focused on how you look and the style of your voice.

Thus, a positive message needs positive body language, facial expression, tone of voice, and strength to back it up—preferably with a steely eye that glints with confidence. Even if you don’t possess one of those, try to fake it until you make it.

Focus on four response options that will help to provide a strategy when questions come assailing you.

• Immediately deny what others say when it is factually incorrect, misinformation, rumour, hearsay, or when you have been misinterpreted. Be strong, brief and have clear evidence to support your denial.

• Admit you are wrong when there has been a misunderstanding or mistake. This is disarming and leaves the questioner with nowhere to go. The wind has been drained from their sails; you look honest and reliable.

• Reverse negative perceptions by turning them into positives. For example, when dealing with competing priorities within the organisation, you might say: “I understand that going through this reorganisation is costing us a lot of time right now. The fact that we are dedicating this time now to the issue should save us all time later by having a more efficient structure”.

• Explain in more detail by providing further background and facts. The reason behind a decision or position is often news to the other party who may not have the same grasp of the details as you.

The distance between our ear and our mouth is way too short! We blurt out the first thing that comes into our mind when we encounter trouble. We need a verbal cushion to slow down the response process. Our first response is rarely our best one, so delay it slightly.

We can do this by paraphrasing, into neutral terms, what someone else has just said. This has a double benefit because you are now in control of the language of the question and you have given yourself some thinking time.

The question might be: “Is it true that the company is going to start firing people next month?” Your paraphrase might be: “The question was about future staffing”.

Other cushions might include phrases such as: “Many people we have talked to have expressed similar concerns”; “That is an important issue, let’s talk about that for a moment”, and “Thank you for bringing that up so we can address it”.

Our brains work very fast, so we only need three or four seconds to get to a second response option, which will always outshine the first bluster that comes out of our mouths.

Calm, considered responses, cushioned for effect, and delivering positive messages in a positive way will disarm any nasty boardroom pirates who are trying to scuttle you.

Good luck!