Difficult Questions: How to Interpret the Question

You get a question. A difficult question. You panic a little. Because these things happen, in coaching and in workshops we encourage people to begin with a Neutral Bridge. As you may recall, the bridge buys you time without an uncomfortable silence. It also helps you think about the question. In this post, let’s dig deeper into what the question is all about.

What is the question asking for? Facts or opinions? Is it a challenge or an objection? Does it contain assumptions, which may or may not be true? Is the question OK but the tone is what makes you uncomfortable? Are there strong emotions at play? If you know the type of question you are being asked, your chance of an effective response increases dramatically.

 Asking for Facts:

  •  How much will this cost? 

  • How long will it take?

  • Does market research support this approach?

 Fact questions are straightforward if you know your content and you are prepared with the data. Don’t get caught off guard with these. Be willing to say you don’t know if that is the case, and then move on to the next question (after promising to get the answer.)

 Asking for Opinions: 

  •  Do you honestly believe this is an appropriate use of taxpayer dollars? 

  • How do you know it’s the best option?

  • Are you sure we can meet these sales projections? 

 You might find it works better to say why you believe what you are saying than to reiterate that you believe it. “Let’s take a good look at how we plan to make our sales projections.” Or, “The reason we chose this option is…”

 If you simply say, “yes I believe it” you probably haven’t answered their real concern, which is “why should I believe it?”   

 The Question is a Challenge:

  •  Have you considered all the options?  

  • Why do you think this is the best course of action?

  • Why didn't we act on this sooner?

  • How can you justify that expense?

 Instead of getting defensive, see if you can focus on where you are at the current time. “Let’s look at the options we considered in making this choice.” Or “Let’s discuss the reasons we chose this course of action.” Always prepare for these questions.

 The Question is an Objection or Opinion: 

  •  I don't agree with your conclusion. 

  • I think we have more pressing issues to deal with.

  • These numbers are unacceptable. 

 When you are one-on-one, you might ask them to say more, but in a group setting, you will probably not want to get into a confrontation if you can avoid it.  Use a Neutral Bridge that moves you forward without engaging in a debate. “Let’s look at why we need to accept these numbers and move ahead to a solution.” Be prepared for these questions and consider having some off-line conversations to win people over before your presentation.

 The Question Contains Assumptions 

  •  Given the condition of today's market, can we really take the risk?

  • We all know that nothing is going to change.

  • According to my research….

 First, it helps to remember that just because someone says it doesn’t make it true. You can argue the condition of today’s market, or you can discuss risk and why this strategy makes sense. You could argue that something can change, or you can focus on what we can do to foster change. As you may guess, the second choice will be more likely to move your ideas forward.

 The Questioner is Emotional

  • I can’t believe you are asking us to take on more overtime.

  • How can you take away our benefits?

  • Why do we have to learn another system when the old one is fine?

 These questions are clearly about more than facts, and you will usually want to address the feelings without overstating or understating them. “I understand your concern about overtime, and here is why we are asking for it….” Or, “I understand you are worried about benefits, and here is how (or why) we are making this change…” Notice both bridges contain the word “and” instead of “but.” Read it aloud and notice the difference.

 It’s Not the Question, it’s the Tone

  •  You want it when

  • Great idea (not.)

 If you can ignore the tone and provide a straightforward answer, the sarcasm may not be a big deal. You could also restate that question or comment, and then answer it. “When do we want it? If we can have it in our hands by Tuesday, we will be able to turn it around in time.”  More advanced speakers might address the tone, “You sound like you’re not quite convinced.” Just note you have given the floor to someone who is already expressing discontent, so be cautious about addressing it this way unless you have time and patience to work it out in public. Remember you can often take a discussion offline if it warrants more time and attention than you can afford during your presentation. 

 Bottom line: When you get a difficult question, think about what the questioner is asking for, take your time, use an appropriate bridge, and be as prepared as possible with good answers.