Thursday, February 07, 2013

Bad words and biscuits. How to handle aggressive questions.

One of the worst nightmares of speakers and presenters is someone in the audience who asks as hostile question. However, there is a technique you can use to defuse even the most angry interrogator. 

Firstly, do not assume that a question is hostile because it is asked in a hostile way. Separate the content of the question from the manner in which it is asked.

Secondly, there is a very effective technique known as “neutral rephrasing” which you can use to remove the hostility from questions. It works like this:

If someone asks a very hostile question, possibly using strong language, you listen carefully and respectfully, and then say “let me see if I understand exactly what you are asking”. Of course, you probably understand their question perfectly, but this phrase allows you a brief time to think, and to create the second phase of the technique.

You then re-phrase the question they have asked, but using non-hostile language. For example, they may have said “You’re hopeless. You clearly haven’t got the faintest idea about the issues here, and you sound like a complete idiot. What can an ill-informed person like you possibly have to offer”. You reply with; “Thank you for the question. Let me see if I understand exactly what you are asking. You suspect that I don’t fully understand the situation here, and therefore may not be able to help. Let me explain what I do know, how I came to my conclusions, and why I think they represent a valuable approach”.  

As you deliver your response, the questioner will nod in agreement, sensing that you have understood the question, and therefore will have to answer it. In their mind, they are still hearing the question they asked. However, the rest of the audience hears your rephrasing of the question, which has removed the hostility.

You then answer your rephrased question as fully as possible, in a calm and measured way. The angry questioner can't claim that you didn't answer their point. The audience will be impressed that you responded in a respectful manner. There are now only two possible outcomes. Either the questioner accepts your response (possibly with a scowl, but that's their problem), or they become aggressive again, which will do them no good, since the audience is now on your side.
One last thing. This is a technique to use sparingly. If you answer every question with a plea for clarification, you won't impress anyone. As the phrase goes, it's a biscuit to keep in your pocket for when you are really hungry.

Picture copyright Alan Stevens 2013


Clare Evans said...

Thanks Alan - a really good technique to have in your 'toolkit'. Hopefully one that we don't have to use too often.

The best approach is not to get too defensive - acknowledge their question or comment and deal with it in a measured way.

Alan Stevens said...


Thanks for your comment. I agree - calm and measured is the best response.