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Dealing With Challenging Questions

by PowerSpeaking, Inc.     Apr 17, 2015 2:00:00 PM

Imagine this situation: you have just completed a high-stakes presentation to a large and responsive audience. You put in weeks of preparation. Your visuals were excellent, your delivery flawless, and the audience (including important decision-makers) loved it.

After the applause dies down, you ask if there are any questions. Suddenly, a hand shoots up and you hear an angry voice say, “Well, that may be all well and good, but it hardly matters when your projects are consistently late and over budget!” A hush falls on the crowd and all eyes are on you.


How do you handle it?

  • First, Deal with Feelings—To put the angry questioner at ease and to increase your credibility in the eyes of the audience, you must acknowledge the questioner’s feelings. To do this, paraphrase—that is, say in your own words— what you believe the person is feeling. Do this non-judgmentally, reflecting the vocal tone and body language of the questioner. The purpose here is to let the person know that you understand his or her concern. (Note: your response does not show agreement, only acknowledgment.) 

If you state the concern accurately, the questioner usually will nod his or her head in agreement with your restatement. This is your goal. The head nodding often will be accompanied by a noticeable physical relaxation because the person now knows you have heard his or her concern.

  • Next, Deal with Facts—Only after you have shown that you really understand his or her emotional position will the questioner be able to hear the logic of your response. Too often we jump right in with an intellectual answer to an emotional statement. All this does is further antagonize the questioner.
  • Then, Answer Whole Group—Once you have agreement from the questioner that you really understand both the content and the feeling of the question, turn physically and move toward the whole audience.

Make the question everyone’s concern. Avoid setting up a one-on-one dialogue with the questioner. Don’t make eye contact with him or her as you finish your answer. This way, you will not look to the questioner for approval. Asking for approval can trigger a second or third follow-up question. Your intent should be to move on quickly to other questions.


Here’s What It Sounds Like

Using the original challenging question, the following is an example of the process we just described.

Questioner (frowning): “Well that may be all well and good, but it hardly matters when your projects are late and over budget!”

You (with feeling): “Sounds like you are irritated that I painted a rosy picture in my speech when our projects are late and over budget. Is that what you mean?”

Questioner (nodding and relaxing a bit): “Yes.”

You (turning away from the questioner and addressing the whole audience): “This is an important issue. Early in the year when our strategic objectives were still in flux, yes, we did miss some deadlines and were 15% over targets. In the past nine months, though, we have been on schedule with high-quality products at, or under budget. Our future performance will be as consistent.

Next question?”


The audience silently applauds your masterful skill.

This process will help you handle challenging questions. Your response will show your respect for differing viewpoints and it will demonstrate your lack of defensiveness. The effect will be increased audience participation. The challenging question is a tough place to be but handling it well will set you apart as a pro.


Download How to Deal with Challenging Questions Guide


Related Blog Posts: Master Tough Questions in Four Steps and The Perils of Adrenalin.


About the Author

PowerSpeaking, Inc.

Topics: Style, Leadership, Handling Questions, Presentation Tips, Audience Participation, Presentation Skills

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