How to Handle a Question You Don’t Want to Answer

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How to Handle a Question You Don’t Want to Answer

Public speaking can be extra challenging when you’re put on the spot.
People asking questions of a presenter. Credit: iStock/PeopleImages
Prepare for tough audience questions with these three tactics. | iStock/PeopleImages

You’ve finished your presentation; you take a breath and ask your audience for questions. A dozen hands go up. Some questions you’ll answer easily, some you’ll admit you don’t have the answer to, but then there are the questions you dread — the ones you can’t answer.

Maybe it’s regarding the features in a new release, the timing of a funding event like an initial public offering, or commentary on some recent newsworthy event that’s a political hot potato. In these types of situations, providing a clear, direct answer might disadvantage you in some way. So the real question becomes how do you respond in a way that maintains your credibility and satisfies the question asker.

Here are three techniques you can use to manage these types of challenging inquiry situations — reframe, blame, or explain.

Reframe

When presented with any tough question, I recommend you start by paraphrasing the inquiry prior to responding. This paraphrasing confirms that you heard the question correctly, validates the asker, affords you time to think, and allows you to reframe the question to make it easier to answer. For example, imagine that an important prospective client asks you about the availability of a particular feature in your product, one that you know is unlikely to exist in the future. Your intake and paraphrase of the question might be, “You’re asking about our road map and how we prioritize our product’s features.” This paraphrase expands the question, giving you an opportunity to set a broader vision and perhaps highlight adjacent or related functionality to the feature that your prospect is seeking. This reframing via paraphrasing affords you a way to morph the question into something more manageable and allows you to refocus your communication.

Blame

Prepare for Challenging Questions with Three Techniques

You can navigate questions using the reframe, blame, or explain options. Here’s what each would look like if you were asked, “When will this feature be included in your product?”

  • Reframe: “You’re asking about our feature prioritization process...”
  • Blame: “We have a corporate policy that prevents us from talking about our product road map.”
  • Explain: “While I can’t speak to that specific feature, I can tell you that all of our decisions about features are guided by ease of use for our clients.”

Providing a legitimate reason for not directly answering a question is another tool for inquiries of this type. Citing legal concerns, regulatory guidelines, or past practice can serve as valid reasons for not responding directly. Alternatively, you can invoke an existing policy that prohibits commenting on questions such as the one asked. Finally, you can blame your inability to respond on your lack of information on the topic. For example, if someone asks what you think of a competitor’s new direction, you can say that you wish to do more in-depth research beforehand, to ensure your response is appropriate/correct.

Explain

In some situations, you can state that you can’t answer the question directly, but you can share some of the rationale or framework that will be employed in addressing the topic of the inquiry. For example, if you work for a privately held company and you are asked about its IPO plans, you could respond by saying, “The question refers to an internal decision that we may or may not make, but our choice will always be driven by our desire to serve our clients, employees, and investors.” Explaining the principles behind your answer allows you to fulfill your obligation to respond to the question, without revealing information you don’t wish to share.

Practice

By taking the time to consider and practice answering hard questions, you can feel more comfortable when confronted with them. Start by doing pre-work prior to Q&A sessions:

  • Think about potentially challenging questions that you can’t or don’t want to answer.
  • Identify possible reframing pathways. Example: Features are about road map priorities, pricing is about value, etc.
  • Have some rationale at the ready for why you can’t or shouldn’t respond. Example: Regulations, following corporate guidelines, etc.
  • Stockpile explanations for your comments. Example: Delighting customers and partners will always guide our decision making; quality is paramount in everything we do, etc.

Next, practice responding to potentially challenging questions out loud. You may even want to digitally record your responses. Finally, validate your ideas by sharing your potential answers with colleagues to ensure consistency and support for your approach.

Once you’ve prepared for these types of questions, you can retain your composure and credibility while still commanding the room during your Q&A sessions.

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