How To Answer Difficult Questions -- universal strategies from the new science of media training

communication media training public speaking soft skills
How to answer difficult questions

In Zen Buddhism there’s a useful word meaning “neither yes nor no”. When an acolyte asked a foolish question, the Master could reply “mu”, meaning “I say ‘yes’ but I mean ‘no’ and the actual answer is: unask the question.”

If only we could say “mu” in modern life! Sadly, it only works on Buddhist monks, and not on children asking if Santa Claus is real. Happily, there exists a large toolbox of practical techniques for answering difficult questions when they come your way. We teach them in in media training and also in public speaking training, for Q&A sessions. These strategies are versatile enough for you to use with bosses, clients, investors, customers – or anyone else in that category of people whose questions you might prefer not to answer directly.

Best practice has changed fundamentally from the bad old days of spin doctoring. Not long ago, it was common for politicians, spokespeople and executives to use clumsy “blocking and bridging” techniques when hit with an unwanted question (or indeed any question). They would dodge the question with a generic blocking phrase (“That’s an interesting point…” or “The fact of the matter is…”) and then change the subject with a bridging phrase (“… but to put it in perspective…”).

Does this language sound familiar? It lingers like a bad smell in set-piece scenarios like presidential debates and formal interviews with legacy media. We advise against this approach: it’s counterproductive to duck a question in a way that makes you look slippery.

How can we remain authentic and truthful while handling a question that simply can’t be answered straight? Trust and authenticity are the real currencies of the new media landscape because these are also the basic dynamics of human communication. That is why there is no tolerance for being evasive. Practice the following approaches and you will be well equipped to handle almost any difficult question that comes your way in an interview, at work or in life.

1/ Don’t answer and say why

We are conditioned from childhood, at an instinctive level, that when someone asks us a question, we are expected to answer it. A child doesn’t have the option to decline to answer. That conditioning tends to surface in adulthood, particularly when the person asking the question is an authority figure. We are also conditioned as children to be cooperative and helpful.

All of this adds up to a feeling that when we’re asked a question, we really should answer it. That leads people to tie themselves in all kinds of knots, trying to dodge a question that they could most reasonably decline to answer. Just because somebody asked you a question does not mean that they are entitled to an answer, or that you are obliged to answer it.

Very often there is a good legitimate reason not to answer. When faced with a hard question, the first thing to do is to ask yourself: do I need to answer this at all? If not, you could say: “I’m sorry, we haven’t made that information public yet,” or “I’m sure you understand, I can’t talk about individual cases,” or “I’d love to tell you the details, but our competitors would love that even more.”

2/ Challenge loaded questions

Many hard questions are hard because they are loaded with a negative or controversial assumption – particularly the “gotcha” style of confrontational interview. Questions are designed as traps, along the lines of the classic false dichotomy: “have you stopped beating your wife?” To answer “Yes” is to admit that you once did beat her; to answer “No” is to admit that you still do. It’s usually wise to answer by pointing out the false assumption, because to let it stand could be seen as confirming it.

3/ Connect verbally with the question

Old-school “blocking” tactics are obvious and infuriating because they make no attempt to address the question: it feels disrespectful. Even if you can’t answer the question directly, find a way to engage genuinely with it.  If you connect with a question in some way – even superficially – you are cooperating. You are playing the game. It’s as simple as making a verbal, conversational connection. Riff on the topic, neutrally, even just to play for time. “That’s a question I’m often asked, and it matters deeply to us because…”. This is sometimes called an “Acknowledging” tactic.

4/ Dismantle the question and use the ingredients

What is a question, anyway? Here’s another piece of conditioning that we need to overcome: as children we are taught that the right thing to do when asked a question is to analyse it and figure out as precisely as possible what information the person wants from us, and then give them that information. That’s how we pass tests and exams. For difficult questions, we need to get more creative, and think entirely differently about what a question is for. Think of a question not as a request for information, but as a starting point for your answer. Practice active listening.

Find something positive. Find something you can agree with. Seize on anything that you can use – even if it’s not directly the thrust of what the questioner was looking for. In other words, treat the question like a buffet. Is there a part of it that you can answer, if not the whole thing? Is there a word in the question that you can use? Is there an idea in the question that you can run with?

For instance: if asked something along the lines of “Does your failure to deliver on your forecasts show that you were ridiculously over-ambitious?”, you might answer by talking positively about ambition.

5/ Riff on positive words

Even horrible questions often include useful ideas or words. If so, repeat them at the start of your answer. Connect your answer to positive ideas in the question. This signals that you are answering, cooperating, engaging. Even if your answer as a whole doesn’t directly address what the questioner was looking for, this is much less obvious and jarring when your answer shares vocabulary with the question.

Here's how that could work for the same example: “It was indeed an ambitious target, and of course we’re disappointed that we missed it, but that doesn’t change the spirit of ambition that drives everything we do.”

6/ Don’t pick up negative words

Never repeat the negative language of a question. President Richard Nixon famously told a group of newspaper editors: “I am not a crook”. It was a crisp and clear denial of wrongdoing, but also the most damaging kind of soundbite, because the word that stuck was “crook”.

Sometimes when you’re asked a question that contains negative words (“failure”, “crisis”, “disappointing”, “incompetent”), those words sneak their way into the answer. This puts you on the back foot: you start your answer in defensive territory and have to work just to get back to the neutral zone.

Instead, start your answer in the positive. Don’t inherit negative ideas – don’t have words put in your mouth. If you have to push back against a false idea, do so without restating it (“On the contrary…” “That’s not true…”). If anyone ever asks you if you’re a crook, deny it by coming out fighting with a positive statement in the opposite direction: “I am a person of principle”.

7/ Disagree by agreeing

Science fiction author Theodore Sturgeon was once challenged that “90% of science fiction is crap”. He famously replied: “yes indeed: 90% of everything is crap”. That statement rang so true that a lifetime later philosophers still cite “Sturgeon’s Law” as an adage: whatever you look at, from music to film to education to government to literature to architecture – 90% of it is, indeed, crap.

What interests me is the genius of that phrase as an answer to a hostile question. The critic’s agenda was dismiss the whole genre of science fiction, and Sturgeon not only disarmed him of this false assumption, but did so by agreeing with him in a clever and selective way.

8/ Pick what you like from the buffet

Often in a Q&A session or news conference somebody stands up and rambles on for a minute or more with a multi-part question. Complex questions can be intimidating, if you’re trying to remember every detail and answer precisely and comprehensively. Instead, think of questions like a buffet – you don’t need to take a bite of everything. Instead, choose what you like best.

Pick one or two ideas or topics from the question, and run with that. This also works with unclear or incoherent questions – if you’re not sure what they are asking you, don’t bother asking for clarification – instead answer a version of the question you’d like to have been asked. It’s rare to be challenged.

9/ Build a connection

You may have heard of the idea of “six degrees of separation”. This is the idea that any two human beings in the world are connected by a chain six or fewer "a friend of a friend" links. It is also true of questions and answers. Your challenge is to find the connection between the question and something positive that you can say.

We play a game in media training, in which I ask each person a random question (“What would you like for your birthday?” or “Where did you get that shirt?”) and the task is to answer conversationally in a way that mentions their brand or product. It's intentionally clunky, which makes it a hilarious game – I would never want a spokesperson to answer in this way. The real goal is to change the mindset from “what does the questioner want” to “what is there in this question that I can use”.

10/ Reframe the topic

Instead of avoiding a question, consider if there is a way that you could answer it more easily from a different perspective. “Reframing to action” is a common approach: asked about a problem, talk about the solution. Asked about the past, talk about the future. Asked about a mistake, talk about what was learned. Reframing techniques have in common that you are not being evasive – you are just answering on your own terms. Other reframing tactics include humanising (reframing from events or things to people affected), reframing outside-in (stop talking about “we” and answer in terms of “you”), and emotionalisation (answering in terms of how you and/or your people genuinely feel about the situation).

11/ Sacrifice a pawn

If you can’t answer the question, at least give the questioner some satisfaction. This is useful particularly in combative interviews when the journalist is taking the role of a champion holding the mighty to account (i.e., you). If you let the journalist feel like they have scored a point, or somehow drawn blood in the encounter, this reduces your chance of being hit again repeatedly with the same line of questioning. Taking a hit can be as simple as a “you are right ­that” or “I acknowledge that” statement.

ISOC course links

This content relates to the following short courses at the International School of Communications, available live online and also face-to-face at our training centres in London and Dubai:

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