Tip #33: Manage hostile questions

There are at least five reasons why questions may be “hostile”- the asker: (1) disagrees with your position on a topic; (2) doesn’t like the subject matter; (4) doesn’t want to be in the class; (4) doesn’t like the client you represent; or (5) doesn’t like YOU!

In all cases, be courteous. Maintain your credibility and control, no matter what happens. Any time you get angry or defensive, it casts doubt on your entire presentation and you lose control. As Dorothy Leeds and Kristen Mohn suggest in PowerSpeak, “If someone deliberately tries to embarrass you, being polite is especially effective. Audiences appreciate fair play and good manners. They will automatically reject the person who is making trouble and be on your side- if you continue to be polite and unruffled.”

If the questioner speaks in a hostile manner, employ active listening to paraphrase the question, using more neutral words that allow you to stay calm. In some cases, you can attempt to lighten the disagreement with good humor, or simply agree to disagree.

If you are dealing with a tough subject and expect a hostile audience, asking people to state their names, companies, and so on, can reduce the amount of questions, because many people do not like to volunteer this kind of personal information. This tactic can work at large rallies or in groups where people are not already acquainted.

If the questioner is simply making personal attacks to get a rise out of you, it can help to reframe and deflect them with one or more of the five negotiation techniques listed below:

  1. Ignore the question. Pretend you didn’t hear it. If the questioner seeks that his or her abusive tactics do not work, s/he will often stop.
  2. Reframe it as an attack on the problem. Ignore the personal criticism, acknowledge the point, and reinterpret it as an attack on the problem..
  3. Reframe it as friendly. Intentionally misinterpret it as a show of concern and shift the focus back on the issue.
  4. Reframe from past wrongs to future remedies. Change the focus from the past and who was wrong to the future and what can be done about the issue now.
  5. Reframe from “you” and “me” to “we.” Change the language from the blaming “you” to the cooperative “we.” Be conscious of body language that separates you from the group, rather than creating a sense of partnership.

As Robert Frost wrote: “Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self confidence.

However, keep in mind that being polite doesn’t mean that you have to be a patsy. If the questioner is out of hand, you can cut him or her off. If s/he is especially provocative, you might consider the kind of reply General Hugh Johnson used occasionally: “I’ll answer any fair question, but I won’t answer a loaded question like this one.”

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