Most of us have been in a position where we needed to come up with a good answer to tough questions we didn’t expect, only to find ourselves unprepared. Master these ten communication skills and you’ll be better able to come up with answers when you need them most.
Can you think on your feet when tough questions come your way?
Whether it comes from a critical customer, curious employee, audacious audience member, probing board chair, rude reporter, detail-oriented investor or another influential business stakeholder, not coming up with the most appropriate answer to tough questions can have negative consequences or derail an important initiative. Mastering these communication skills can help ensure that the next time tough questions get tossed your way, you’re ready to react.
Be Prepared to Answer Tough Questions by Mastering these 10 Skills
1. Learn how to listen.
Business leaders tend to do a lot of communicating, but that communication is often one-way. Listening attentively and openly, especially to tough questions that might put you on the defensive requires intent and discipline, and you may even need to practice:
- Bring in an expert and hold a leadership workshop focused on improving listening skills
- Increase solicitation of feedback from employees, customers and other stakeholders
- Encourage healthy debate and constructive sharing of dissenting opinions
2. Get to the heart of the question.
The openforum.com article talked about finding the trigger word in a sentence so that you can respond most appropriately. However, sometimes the question asked isn’t the real question. If you learn to identify the motivation or point of concern that underlies the question itself, you may be able to provide the most appropriate answer and keep an initiative, policy or other important issue on track. It will also help prevent people asking tough questions from steering you in a direction you don’t want to go.
3. Start with the shortest answer.
Often, a simple “yes,” “no,” or even an “I’m not certain yet” response, with no further explanation offered, is the best answer. If it does not suffice, you can also ask to table a question you aren’t ready to answer for another time or request to follow up with a group or individual privately.
4. Think diet-sized portions.
Knowing when to stop, rather than going on and on or belaboring a point can enhance the way colleagues and staff perceive you as a leader – and keep you out of trouble when rambling may lead to divulging information you didn’t mean to share. Imagine that your audience members are on a strict diet, and limit answer-portions to help them stay on track!
5. Turn negatives into positives.
If someone levels an accusation or criticism in the form of a question, rather than repeating it (which may actually sound like you’re stating it as a fact or giving credence to the criticism), reword the question so that it comes out in positive – or at least neutral – language.
6. Plan ahead.
On your own or with a trusted peer, think through the weak points of your position or your argument before you make that tough presentation, announcement or policy delivery. This can help you prepare for tough questions that might be lobbed your way, neutralize critics and increase staff buy in for new initiatives or policy changes.
7. Prepare visuals.
Especially when dealing with complex processes, the possibility of multiple outcomes or a variety of cause-and-effect scenarios, creating visuals which help people understand a process or conceptualize various outcomes can answer many of the questions people may have about your presentation before they are even asked.
8. Decide on a delivery system.
Whether you think in terms of writing a news article (who, what, when, were, why, and how), cost-and-benefit pairings, past-present-future timeline divisions or other systems, structuring your presentation and planning out answers to anticipated or controversial questions can help you strengthen your presentation and avoid diversions.
9. Create and maintain an FAQ database.
Create a data center which can be accessed by your audience members to house the questions that come up frequently and include positive version of potentially critical or negative questions that you’ve anticipated may arise. This can be an especially effective strategy when you will be giving a presentation to multiple audiences or you want to give people time to review information on their own before coming to a decision.
10. Last, but not least, don’t be perfect, be yourself.
Perfection is not a possibility. Be prepared, but be transparent and honest about what you do and don’t know. When you let go of the pursuit of perfection and strive, instead, to be the best, most honest ‘you’ that you can be, you have a better chance of winning over any audience you face.
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