I once worked with a CEO who thought it was his job to poke holes in any new idea someone presented to him.

He would sit back, frown, and become a machine gun.

Those who were unprepared were literally cut down. Those who had anticipated his questions and approach got a fair shot at communicating their ideas. Which the CEO did consider in a clear-eyed manner.

Not everyone who uses these techniques is malicious. Some use them to uncover the risks in what you’re suggesting. Either way, it’s good to know how to handle these people.

This group of four questioners uses different techniques to turn up the heat in a Q&A. Many times their motive is to see how you behave under pressure.

The Paraphraser

Problem: She unfairly and incorrectly restates what you say. Often she replaces the words you’ve used with her own judgmental ones. If you speak about the potential risk of an action (because you’re thorough and want to offer a comprehensive case), she plays this back as something that will occur – and how awful that will be.

Solution: Your first impulse is to get angry: she’s twisting what you said! Instead, take a deep breath (to help calm your mind) and restate your position carefully: “I guess I didn’t make myself clear …” Act as if this was unintentional on her part – even if you suspect it wasn’t.

The Color Commentator

Problem: After you’ve made a point or a presentation, he makes a provocative statement without actually asking a question. Many times people do this to get a reaction from you or to get others in the room on their side. For example: “That’s quite an idea!”

Solution: Don’t take the bait. It’s deep breath time again. Then try one of these:

  1. “Sorry, I don’t think I understand your question.” (Make him ask so you can address a concrete issue.)
  2. “It’s probably not appropriate for me to comment on that. But what I can tell you is …”

 The Silencer

Problem: She pauses for several seconds after you’ve finished answering and looks at you as though you’re going to continue. Her goal is that you’ll feel uncomfortable with the silence and say something you didn’t intend to. You’ve seen this a lot in ambush interviews by some reporters – and watched their subjects squirm and blather.

Solution: You have three good choices here:

  1. Fill the void with your key messages. These are the three ideas you decided in advance that you wanted people in this meeting to remember after the Q&A was over. You may transition in this way: “Perhaps it would help if I told you more about …”
  2. Look at her and say, “Did that answer your question?” Make sure you use an even tone (rather than a snarky or fearful one). Your stance is one of assuming her goodwill and trying to be helpful.
  3. Don’t say anything. Just look at her and smile (avoiding a snide or confrontational expression). You may use silence as well as she can.

The Investigator

Problem: He asks for secrets or confidential information. Often he knows he’s not supposed to do this and that you certainly shouldn’t give it to him. Sometimes his approach is direct and confrontational. Other times it’s a “just between you and me” feeling, because he wants you to believe he’s your buddy.

Solution: Stick to what you know you can say – even when you’re tempted to show you know the answer (and get that little kick of showing you’re an insider). Then say, “While I can’t speak to that, here’s what I can tell you …”  and bridge to one of your key messages.

What Now?

Remember: Q&A is supposed to be a conversation, not an interrogation. You and the people asking you questions are on equal footing. We often feel that those who ask the questions have all the power. They don’t: because you have information they need.

If you’d like a cheat sheet with a convenient outline of all the questioners and techniques for handling them, download that here.

Click here to see Part 1.

Do you need to do a better job with Q&A for an upcoming meeting, or in general? Let’s talk.