I remember the first time I saw a malicious questioner.

Our public relations agency office was leaking consultants and clients. Corporate sent someone to interview us to see what was up. Then the regional VP came to give us the “results.”

As soon as he started talking, we all gave up hope that anything positive would happen.

Except my friend Jane. She said what we were all thinking: “I don’t think the ideas you shared have addressed the real issues.”

So the VP kept asking her questions. It was like a spider inching toward a fly caught in its web. Jane got flustered. Then the VP pointed out she had just contradicted herself, and said, “If you EVER get a clear idea of what you want to say, then contact me.”

When the meeting ended, Jane ran from the room.

Here are ways to prevent this from happening to you.

Three Kinds of People Who Don’t Ask Questions to Get Information

Sometimes people will ask you questions so you’ll look bad. Or make them look good. Or see how you behave under pressure. Or not even know they’re being jerks.

Our first reaction usually is defensiveness. And pretty soon we’ve forgotten our goals for having this conversation and the information we wanted to share. (See Three Ways to Win Any Interview for some tips on this.)

Here are three of the most common and noxious types of interviewers you may face, followed by tactics you can use to avoid giving up your power.

The Omniscient Authority

Problem: This person expects you to know everything, including the answers to her most obscure questions. Often she’ll probe areas she knows you aren’t involved in. Then she belittles you when she finally finds something you can’t answer.

Solution: Redirect her. “That’s not my area of expertise. However, since this is important to you, I’ll look into and let you know what I find by Thursday.” Speak the truth, rather than trying make something up to cover your butt. Save yourself the pain of being found out — and humiliated — later.

The Machine Gun

Problem: He fires multi-part questions at you without giving you the time to answer any of them. As the questions pile up — unaddressed or half-answered — you can appear to be overwhelmed and incompetent.

Solution: Look at him and smile patiently as he fires away. Sooner or later he’ll have to take a breath. Then make the best choice:

  1. Answer the question you want (among all the ones he has asked).
  2. Address the issue raised by the series of questions: “I think the larger issue you’re getting at is … Here’s what I know about that.”

The Interrupter

Problem: While she lets you begin to share your answer, she never lets you complete a thought. Your frustration can begin to show. That’s when she may point out that you’re not being clear. Or are being unfair. Or something else that lets the rest of the room know you’ve lost your cool and she has won.

Solution: You have two choices here, too:

  1. Ignore her interruption. Keep talking (at your current volume and pace) and come back to her latest question later.
  2. Stop and listen patiently to the new question. Then say, “I’ll answer that in a moment. Now, as I was saying …” and continue with your first answer.

Never get into a shouting match with any of these three provocative questioners. Even though they may be raising their voices to escalate the situation. 

Remember: you’re there to 1) reach your goal for this meeting and 2) share the important information that everyone — not just these questioners — needs to know.

 Check in next week for Part 2, which includes more interview uglies, such as the Color Commentator and the Silencer.

Need some techniques to help you keep control of any Q&A or interview? Let’s talk.