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CAREERS NOW
Joyce Lain Kennedy

www.sunfeatures.com

How to Beat Loaded Questions

DEAR JOYCE:

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

DEAR STUNG:

In public or in private, remember that questions may be statements in disguise. Sometimes they're straightforward, sometimes they have hidden meanings.

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 paraphrase.

- 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 additional headcount.

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 specifics.

- 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 others."

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 stands out.

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.

 

 

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