Joyce Lain Kennedy
How to Beat Loaded Questions
I was asked to research and present suggestions to solve a tardiness
problem plaguing our department. I basically suggested that we all
mentally aim to arrive 15 minutes earlier each morning.
But then a colleague asked, "That's interesting but will the company
be serving breakfast when we get here? My presentation didn't end
well after that. What's the best way to handle zinger questions in
public? - Stung
In public or in
private, remember that questions may be statements in disguise.
Sometimes they're straightforward, sometimes they have hidden
Business coach Dr. Karen Otazo in "The Truth About Managing Your
Career ... And Nothing But the Truth," a new book published by
Pearson Education/Prentice Hall, says that to come out ahead on
statements pretending to be questions, you should prepare yourself
to "respond positively, neutrally, or not at all to whatever you're
asked, whatever the intent."
She offers strategies for common so-called questions, which I
- The straightforward audience member who wants to be heard will
disagree, and then mention an alternative proposal, followed by
"What do you think?" (Tip: Beware of killer questions that begin or
end with "Don't you think?")
Getting defensive doesn't work. Instead, politely indicate there are
cases to be made for different points of view. If confident, restate
why you think your approach is correct. Otherwise, graciously smile
and move on. If push comes to shove, suggest taking the question
"offline" to discuss later so you can move on for now.
- Questions that are hidden statements are meant to reveal
weaknesses or oversights. They may be preceded by a half-compliment
to catch you off guard: "That was interesting but when will you be
bringing on more people for this?" In other words, there should be
Dr. Otazo recommends sidestepping the issue and responding
neutrally: "We are committed to making this work and will bring on
additional staff if and when there's a need." Never get specific but
use a general statement to return the volley.
- What-if questions may be used to imply that you won't be able to
achieve something: "What if you can't complete the project by the
deadline?" Your answer is to talk about the importance of project
timelines and how carefully your team has planned. Again, no
- When asked a false-fact question - "Now that you've lost money on
this, what can you do to keep costs down? - nip the implication in
the bud. "As a matter of fact, we are on budget" - and move on.
All questions that are meant as attempts to convey rather than
request information are not necessarily a move to discredit you, Dr.
Otazo believes. "More often, they are about making the speaker look
good, helping him or her display intellect or acumen in front of
Other than anticipating loaded questions and keeping your cool, if
you want a Ph.D. in fielding flinty inquiries, the same publisher
last year released "In the Line of Fire: How to Handle Tough
Questions ... When It Counts," by top-level corporate presentations
coach Jerry Weissman.
The author explains Q&A strategies in great detail, including the
technique of "topspin," a tennis term. It means a stroke that hits
the ball high, forcing it to bounce sharply and making it difficult
for the opponent to return. Among Weissman's many illustrations of
political topspin, Ronald Reagan's in a 1984 presidential debate
When Reagan was challenged on his advanced age, he said he could
function in high-stress situations and then, with charm, walloped
the ball high and hard:
"I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to
exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and
inexperience." That's a topspin.