Whether delivering a presentation, meeting with a client in the heat of a crisis, or battling with your teen over curfews, how you respond to a hostile question can make or break your credibility for everything else you have to say.
Once, when a newspaper reporter called me, he opened with this line: “I’m calling for your reaction to a story about to run. . . .” (long pause) “I’m doing a story on Mr. X [he called the name of a CEO whom I’d helped write his memoirs]. I’ve just talked to the wife, and she said you wouldn’t allow her husband to do X? Do you have a reaction to her comment?”
The mental image that flashed in my mind was a fish hook.
You’d do well to keep that same image in mind the next time you get a hostile question during a management briefing or sales call.
Not all hostile questions are meant to hook your emotionally or show you up. But they CAN have that effect if not handled well. (You have watched weary PR staffers stumble out of press conferences, haven’t you?)
Responding to Hostile Questions With Credibility and Confidence
Unload the Loaded Question
Consider this example: “Why are you so against giving babies from China and other countries a chance to live by embracing the very policy that prevents this surgery, when so many people in the U.S. are willing to adopt these babies and pay for the surgery?”
This question is like asking, “Are you still beating your spouse?”
To unload such a loaded question, the best response is to disagree with the premise. In the case above, you might say, “I don’t agree with the premise that the new policy prevents such surgeries.” Such a direct response definitely calls attention to a loaded question.
Replace and Restate
Never repeat the “hot words” as you respond to a hostile question. Instead, replace the negative words with neutral ones. (You recognize hot words from your past work experience—presentations, meetings, emails, complaint letters, apologies: “Unfair.” “Intolerable.” “Disingenuous.” “Skyrocketing.” “Sleazy.” “Complaints.” “Misleading.” “Unbelievable.”)
For example, someone in your employee group asks, “Why do we have to complete so many forms to get this done? It’s ridiculously repetitious and time-consuming.”
Using this technique, you replace the hot words with neutral, factual words: “We estimate that these three forms should take about 8 minutes to complete. Some of the questions do seem similar. That’s purposeful. We want you to rethink and reconfirm your answers each time. That improves the chances that the assessments really align with your true values.”
As you replace and restate with neutral words, keep your tone matter of fact—as if answering “Is the sky blue?”
In both cases—with loaded questions and the hot words––your response often dictates the tone of the next question and the next. In the eyes of observers, the calmest person wins.
For more techniques on responding to hostile questions, see next week’s column: “MORE on How to Handle Hostile Questions––Part 2.”