Thursday, January 29, 2009

Learn How to Handle Those Tough Questions

Many of us are more comfortable sending e-mails or memos at work, never having to directly face other human beings who — gasp! — want to ask us questions.

But sometimes you have to speak with people face-to-face, and sometimes it can get uncomfortable. Like when you're required to make off-the-cuff remarks or answer difficult questions.

“Why are you late with that project?" “You're being paid more than me and we do the same job. Do you think that's fair? “I know we don't get along, but will you be a reference for me?” These are a few of the queries we might be asked that put us on the spot, making us long for our keyboard where we would have time to tap out a response.

Of course, you want to sound reasonable when someone asks you a question. You want to sound intelligent. But somehow your brain goes into denial, causing you to stammer and then blurt out the first thing that comes to mind. Then for hours or even days, you beat yourself up about how you should have given a better response, but you were unprepared for the question.

And that's the key. In order to avoid being caught flat-footed, you must be aware of what questions may be asked, and then write out what your answer should be. And, of course, don’t assume because a subject is unpleasant that someone won’t bring it up.

That's why the first thing you've got to do is give some consideration to the
questions from hell that may come your way, then decide what a reasonable response will be. If you can’t come up with an appropriate answer ("How much money do you make?" then ask someone else for help. That way, you get the answer with the right "spin" and one that you feel makes sense.

If you feel like you need to gain better control over your face-to-face interactions, here are some tips that may help:

* Keep moving. Let's say you're giving a presentation or speech, and someone asks a question. Provide a concise answer, but try to move onto other audience members as soon as you can. That way more people feel included, and keeps you from getting into long-winded discussions or confrontations with just one person.

* Build in thinking time. When you're asked a question, repeat a few words of it back to the person. This gives you time to formulate your answer. It also helps take some of the bit out of a hostile or awkward question. You can ask the person something like, "What would you like to see happen?" or "In your opinion, what is the best outcome?"

* Keep the answer manageable. If you are asked a difficult question that defies a quick answer, break it down by saying, "There are three parts to my answer and the first part is..." This helps you keep track of where you're going and makes the other person feel like you're giving a thoughtful answer.

* Don't admit ignorance. Perhaps you don't know the specific answer to a question, but you can say, "That's a great question, and I'm looking into it. But did you know that..." This helps you save face and still provides your listener with information.

What are some other ways to deal with tough questions?

Lijit Search


David Benjamin said...

Per usual, enjoyed reading your post. I had another suggestion for many who struggle with answering tough questions.

Consult with a life coach or recruiter asap. Even if you are not in job transition, these professionals are trained to help their clients and candidates with the best ways to handle difficult situations and questions.

As you stated, preparing for the most difficult or uncomfortable topics ahead of time will make life much easier when/if the occasion arises.

Much like studing for a big test, the better you prepare, the more likely you are to do well.

Anita said...

As always, you give great suggestions!

Anonymous said...

When we are prepared for various situations we can create better responses. I like how you say to move on to other people instead of staying on one person. It keeps the whole crowd engaged.

If you don't know what to say then don't say anything at all. A lot of times we feel pressured to talk, but it's best to stay calm, collect the thoughts and figure out the best response.

Anonymous said...

I have also found that reading self-improvement books like the classic "How to Win Friends" is a terrific way to achieve all-around improvement of interpersonal relationships. Books like these have proven beneficial throughout time, whether at entry-level or executive jobs.

Anita said...

Thanks for your suggestion. I agree it's a smart move to not say anything if you're just going to babble and make things worse. You can always say that you need to gather more research, and quickly change the subject to something you're more comfortable with.

Anita said...

I've always said there is no Holy Grail of workplace advice. You have to find what works best for you and then use that to build on. "How to Win Friends and Influence People" is a great place to start. There are lots of good career advice books out there (including, ahem, mine), so you can only benefit yourself by learning as much as you can and becoming proactive in your career.
Thanks for posting.