05 September 2012

Wednesday 101s: 5 quick answers to tricky questions

Wednesday 101s
It’s happened to me a million times – you’re in a meeting and someone (the boss, a client, a potential business partner) asks you a question you’re just not ready for. And instead of sitting there like a boggle-eyed fish blowing bubbles in a bowl, I’ve always wanted some sort of quick-response guide to provide an adequate enough answer to keep the meeting moving forward and to win an opportunity to respond later with the correct information.

I’ve said before that it’s imperative to go to meetings completely prepared (especially where figures/numbers are concerned, when it’s harder to weasel out of something) but you simply can’t anticipate everything – and, let’s face it, some questions are there to deliberately trip you up. But you can stumble, roll and stand up tall with losing credibility

The three main rules for answering questions are: 
1. Be honest. Don’t lie to cover up something you don’t know as it may come back to bite you in the ass later. Saying “I don’t know” is sometimes to your detriment, so avoid it. 

2. Be direct and confident, not defensive. A positive, pro-active reply will get you further. 

3. Don’t waffle. Give the exact information that’s required to answer what’s being asked in a simple manner. Baffling people with flowery, fancy words and jargon you assume they’ll understand doesn’t make you look clever. It’s just cringe-worthy. 

So here are five quick responses for when you’re asked a tricky question – it’s up to you to decide when to use them: 

1. The deliberately dumb question 
“I get what you’re saying but I believe the question you should be asking is...” 

2. The question that’s completely out of left field that’s really important 
“I don’t have an answer for you, but your question deserves a proper answer and I’d like to take the time to do that offline if that's okay.” 

3. Specific question about something, which is confusing or unclear (when your inner voice goes "huh?") 
“Just to make sure I understand, you’re asking me to....” rephrase their query in your own words to make sure you get what it is they want to know of you. Once you get clarity, you’re better able to craft your response. 

4. A question about your opinion on something 
Often, unless you’re senior management, your personal opinion isn’t in question. Avoid the urge to get into gossip, company politics and discussing confidential business matters. In your response, stick to a reply that’s true to your company’s or project’s ethos

5. A question that asks you to show your expertise 
“What we learned from working with Client X on Project A last year was...” 

I personally tend to favour response no 2 if I don't know something or haven't got the info with me. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn't. So if you have any responses that you've tried and they've worked, please add them as a comment.

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