When is the last time you put your foot in your mouth at work when somebody thrust you on the hot seat with a difficult question or personal attack?
Sometimes the simple words we utter under pressure create anger, retribution, public embarrassment, lost productivity, misplaced blame, legal nightmares, career land mines, or worse.
What do you say to your staff when you must carry out policies that both you and they hate? What do you say when an employee asks you about the CEO's obvious favoritism?
These and hundreds of others are, indeed, very tough questions, yet there are better ways to respond (no, not easy, but better).
When we're under attack by the news media or co-workers, most of us react counterproductively. We attack back, deny, argue or play the blame game. That just escalates the conflict.
Instead, gain control of tough questions and lead the momentum to your positive information, or wherever you want to direct everyone's attention. To do that, learn and practice a few simple techniques that experienced communicators use to defuse verbal land mines, as demonstrated in Manager's Tough Questions Answer Book, (c) Copyright, 1966, Prentice Hall.
"No comment" is usually dumber than dumb.
Every good communications consultant says it's dumb to say "no comment", and they're right. The void you leave with "no comment" will be filled immediately by your enemies. If you can't comment, at least explain why you can't comment.
First and last, don't lie. Regardless of its morality, lying in response to tough questions is tactically stupid. You have to make up the lie, then continuously invent more lies to support the first, and remember all of them while being bombarded with more hostile questions.
You will not remember all of them accurately, which will become obvious. Then you will have the original problem plus the new one of being caught in lies. Washington has lots of pubic figures and high-powered executives who never seem to learn that lesson.
Gain control with a response, not an answer
Answers are limited to the literal meaning of the question. A response goes deeper by addressing major concerns surrounding the question. Most people mistakenly think they must answer the question as asked. Absolutely false. Life isn't a courtroom drama where you are forced to pigeonhole your comments or say something you don't want.
Customer: "I told you that your employee treated me rudely. Are you just going to let him get away with that?"
Here you want to assure the customer that you are concerned and will act responsibly, but you don't want to reveal any personnel action you will or won't take. Instead of irritating the unhappy customer by saying you won't discuss possible discipline, you could "respond" this way:
Manager: "I believe that you have been offended, and I promise you it will not happen again. I'm going to look into this as soon as we're done talking here. That is not the way our associates have been trained to deal with customers."
Bridge to your positive information
Redirecting questions is easy once you grasp the most effective technique: bridging. You can use a bridge of words to answer the basic question and then move toward the points you want to emphasize.
Done right, the method can simultaneously satisfy questioners and then transfer attention from your alleged problem to your solution or best action.
A great bridge that helps you stall a moment to gather your thoughts is the easy-to-remember "past-present-future".
Give yourself time by briefly stating what happened (past) and what is happening now (present). While you are stating somewhat obvious past and current events, your mind forms a response that will describe your positive view for the future, the only place where new improvement can be created.
When an elderly customer died after electric service was accidentally disconnected at her Illinois home several years ago, the utility gave an excellent past-present-future response:
Question: "How could you make such a terrible mistake?"
Response: "The accidental disconnection was a tragic mistake, and we take responsibility for it. We have expressed our sincere regret and condolences to the family and offered any assistance. We will be reviewing all of our procedures to see what changes need to be made so nothing like this can happen again."
Another very effective bridge is: "I understand what you are asking. Lots of people are concerned about that, but they need to know...(give your important points)."
This bridge quickly makes it clear that you have heard and understood the questioner's concerns. It further shows that he is like other normal people who might think that way. After giving the crucial acknowledgment of the person and his concerns, your response moves on to what "they need to know...(your important points)."
Admit to mistakes, then move on!
Admitting obvious mistakes sounds like common sense, but how often do you hear people admit to them? Refusing to admit to obvious mistakes makes people think you are hiding something.
Friends and fans or bosses and colleagues won't grant forgiveness until we confess and atone. Get rid of the drag by briefly acknowledging obvious errors; then bridge to corrective actions.
Sometimes answering with complete candor won't be wise, so respond to the context or general situation instead. For example, if you are a mid-level manager whose staff bravely ask, "How can you implement that policy when you know it's so wrong?"
Instead of foolishly falling on your sword and refusing to implement the policy, or telling the staff to just do as they are told, you could say:
"If everybody here obeyed only the directions they liked, we'd have chaos in an hour. I gave my opinion, they made a decision, and it's going to be done by me and done very well. If you're as wise as I think you are, you will do the same."
Show understanding to gain more credibility
One way to insure that no one accepts your response is to ignore or insult other viewpoints. Our society deems it a virtue to have an open mind and show respect for other ideas. That doesn't mean you have to agree with them, but acknowledge their views respectfully.
"I understand what you are asking and why it concerns you so much...." Say this only if you really do understand and are sincere. If you are not, it will show and, again, you will be worse off.
Don't throw fuel on the fire
The words you choose for responding to tough questions can mean the difference between putting out the fire or fanning the flames higher. Angry questioners can become incensed when they hear certain words or phrases they feel insult or demean them.
Bad: "You should have..."
Better: "One option you could have considered..."
Bad: "You're wrong, that's not what I said..."
Better: "If that's what you thought you heard me say, then I didn't explain myself as well as I would like. Let me try again..."
The last response (...I didn't explain myself well, let me try again) is a superb bridge when someone misquotes your earlier comments.
Don't start another argument by telling the person he's got it all wrong. Side step the thrust by taking control with that bridge, and re-explain what you meant to say. It will subtly but amply make it clear that the questioner had it wrong, but you won't have a second issue to fight about.
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