What's the answer to dealing with difficult questions?

Richard Keith
Examination Suite
Businesses are facing tough questions ahead of the EU referendum later this month (Source: Getty)

As the debate over whether Britain should leave the EU intensifies we are once again exposed to the interminable dance of politicians being asked questions and subsequently not answering them.

Nobody seems to have any idea what will happen. It appears that the Leave Campaign can only repeat horror stories about immigration if we stay, and the Remain Campaign bat the ball back with similarly recurring horror stories about the economy if we go.

Such repetition only exacerbates the poor responses. Politicians may be the most obvious examples, but they aren’t the only ones dealing with tough questions on a regular basis. It’s happening all over the City right now.

CEOs are being grilled on their company’s poor performance, firms wishing to float are being questioned about their future markets, salesmen are being challenged by clients to clarify the benefits of a product, and nervous individuals are being invited by large panels to explain why they deserve to be promoted.

Read more: Europe is facing a perfect storm this summer

Answering difficult questions effectively has become an immense part of being persuasive and, therefore, a huge influence on success in today’s commercial world.

Yet, we are generally poor at it. We shouldn’t be – we’ve had the question mark in our language since around the 8 th century so we’ve had plenty of time to practise. But evidently it is not a skill that most of us have spent time mastering.

Answering questions well nearly always entails doing so firstly, fully yet concisely and in a considered way; it usually includes the additional skill of ‘bridging’ to a positive point. I have seen this technique done superbly and the key reasons why it is so important become instantly apparent.

Read more: Everything you need to know about Brexit

Firstly, answering in this way enhances significantly the impression of being trustworthy. Trust is a key element in persuasion and therefore a huge influence on being convincing.

Secondly, it is immensely satisfying to the questioner. When you answer a question firstly, fully yet concisely the questioner receives the information that they actually wished to know. They asked that particular question for a reason, so giving the answer to a different question (often one that is sort of similar, but has been practised before) won’t cut it. That’s like ordering the sirloin and being served a burger: frustratingly unfulfilling.

Thirdly, it can be a real point of differentiation. As most people don’t answer difficult questions well it is genuinely outstanding when somebody does, making that person’s communication more impactful, clear and memorable when compared to others.

The need to persuade in business is as crucial as ever; so whatever the direction of GDP or net migration after 23 June, the importance of this particular commercial skill will only rise.

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