The questioner stomped to the microphone and leaned in, at first crossing and then waving his arms. His voice was loud and shrill, his tone sarcastic and derisive. The audience shifted its gaze from responder to questioner and back, uncomfortable, half-fearing that a shouting match would erupt.
What's a responder to do?
You can take certain pre-emptive steps to reduce the likelihood of hostile questioning or verbal attacks during a Q&A by knowing your audience and its issues, anticipating its questions and preparing responses. You can learn and practice effective ways of maintaining control of the session.
But it's also good to know and rehearse specific defusing techniques that can help you manage questioner hostility in a calm, civil, objective manner. Your purpose in doing so is to preserve your credibility as you reinforce your messages despite the antagonism with which some questions may be delivered.
Here are three great techniques. Central to all three is that they direct attention away from the hostile questioner by allowing you to provide your entire audience with a rational, deliberative response to issues.
ACKNOWLEDGE AND EMPATHIZE
One way to begin is by acknowledging the questioner's emotion or opinion but then providing additional rationale or evidence to strengthen your own message. For example: "I can hear your concern about departmental reorganization. Please allow me to offer a couple other reasons why the reorganization is a solid way to increase efficiency as well as the work-life balance so many here support." This technique recognizes the feelings or beliefs of the questioner but creates space for you to emphasize information important to your message.
The following phrases can help you acknowledge and empathize:
- Thanks for outlining your position. Please allow me to provide just a few more details that have a bearing on it.
- I can see that you feel strongly about this issue. I'd like to present two additional scenarios, however, that may…
- It sounds like you have given this a lot of thought. Others may share your concerns, and what they need to know is…
IDENTIFY THE ISSUE AND REFRAME THE QUESTION
When a question contains inflammatory or emotionally-charged language, identify the issue that prompted it. Then rephrase the question using neutral language that focuses on the issue. Thus if a questioner barks, "Why now? What's the point of reorganizing now? This isn't a good time," you might reframe by saying, "These questions concern the implementation schedule of the reorganization." Then continue by emphasizing the key points of the planned implementation.
Such reframing allows you to defuse some of the hostility by identifying the key issue to be addressed and providing an objective segue into your response.
While we don't recommend evading a question, certain phrases can help you redirect it. In doing so, you can focus your response on the information you believe most pertinent and persuasive.
These phrases can help you bridge from the question to your response:
- One option to consider is…
- This question raises several issues. Let's look at them…
- It might be relevant to talk about…
- If we look at the big picture, the question becomes…
When you rehearse for a Q&A, prepare for hostility. It won't happen often, but reacting with composure if it does will not only preserve your credibility but increase it.