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  • Writer's pictureEileen Smith

3 ways to respond to difficult questions you don’t want to answer


3 ways to respond to difficult questions you don’t want to answer Pro tip from a former diplomat: Anticipate difficult questions and practice saying your responses out loud before the big day.


From board meetings, business pitches, and job interviews, all the way to Presidential debates: tough questions are inevitable. To avoid the stumble, the deer in the headlights moment, or the unintended response that could squash your chances to win, study up on these techniques. WHEN YOU DON’T KNOW THE ANSWER TO THE QUESTION The first step is to say what you do know. Even if you don’t know the answer to the exact question they’re asking, you probably know something about the topic at hand. If the question is detailed and specific, zoom out until you can focus on the same topic at a higher level.

Let’s say the question is about your opinion on a particular grain of sand. Back up and talk about the beach instead of that one grain. Step back far enough until you find yourself on comfortable ground and talk about that.

If that response doesn’t do it, and the questioner persists, say what information you need to have before you can answer the question. “After the next Fed meeting, we’ll have more information about where the economy is going.” Or, “My campaign is conducting a study to identify real options for the American people.” If you’re in a meeting at work and you’re faced with a question that you need more information to answer, you can say, “The budget team is working on that. I’m going to stay in my lane and let them answer.”

When all else fails, go ahead and say, “I don’t know.” But only after you have discussed what you do know to establish your credibility on the topic.

WHEN YOU DON’T WANT TO ANSWER THAT QUESTION Don’t take a sharp turn and ignore the question just because it isn’t the question you want. Answer it in as concise a way as you can. Then use a transitional phrase to pivot to your message. For example, · Answer: That’s an important issue you’re raising. · Transitional Phrase: Here’s what people need to know . . . · Response: Nearly one in five U.S. adults live with a mental illness. My platform includes three recommendations . . .” You’re answering the question, using a short transitional phrase, then making your case. Other transitional phrases you might want to use include: “That depends. This is what’s important about the rising price of gas.” Or: “No, I don’t see it that way. What the American people need is my plan to . . .”

One more approach, if the question is unclear or you don’t want to answer it as asked, is to say, “What I think you’re asking me is . . .” Then rephrase the question. The key is to rephrase it in a way that is close enough to the original question to sound like you’re on their track, but turned in a direction that you prefer to go.

WHEN THE QUESTION IS AN ATTACK OR CHALLENGE Before any question-and-answer situation, whether that’s a town hall, a client pitch, a job interview, or a board meeting, gather your team to anticipate difficult questions. What are the worst questions you might hear? How will you respond? At the State Department, we called this a Murder Board. If someone was preparing for a confirmation hearing on the Hill, representatives from every office involved would come together and bring their worst. The nominee would give an answer (and get their caustic, glib responses off their chest!). Then the group would discuss how they could make the answer stronger.

Maybe the question is something you really don’t want to talk about. You’re going to want to have something to say. Perhaps there’s been some negative news about your campaign or a report your organization issued.

You could say, “I’m glad you raised that. The integrity of our reporting is of the highest importance to us. We use a vigorous methodology . . .” Acknowledge the problem, then turn back to what you do want to say. If someone uses negative words in their question, such as, “Wouldn’t you agree this program is a failure,” don’t use their negative words in your response. For example, instead of responding, “No, this program isn’t a failure . . .,” you can say, “This program is just beginning to show results.”

If one of your fellow candidates—or a colleague says something that is incorrect in a meeting and it matters to you—set the record straight. If you don’t respond, it can look like you agree with the speaker. Calibrate your response to match the depth of your feelings on the issue. One option is to wait until you have a new opening to speak, and state your case, without referring to what the other person said.

However, if another speaker has said something particularly egregious or offensive, intervene immediately and say something like, “Let me step in here. I disagree with that.” Then state your case. This applies to a debate, a panel, or a contentious meeting at the office. Whenever you’re going into a question-and-answer situation, anticipate difficult questions and practice saying your responses out loud before the big day.

Eileen Smith is a diplomat-turned-public-speaking-coach who helps business executives and policy experts prepare for speeches, media interviews, board meetings, and more.

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