Awkward Questions will often drop on us out of the blue. Usually at meetings, someone will turn to you and say “And what do you think of the idea?” Alas, the concise reply which would have seen you achieve greatness will not occur to you until at least two hours after the meeting finishes.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could manage to respond quickly and competently to an abruptly asked question that we don’t have time to prepare for?

So how about a little ‘Prior Preparation and Practice’; and it starts immediately before the next meeting. This is where those awkward questions can be anticipated. Ask yourself “What is on the agenda? Is there anything that applies to my position or my department? Are there any controversial issues which I may be asked to comment on?”

Make notes about your answers and decide what you want to say about topics that you think may be referred to you. What information do you think may be required? What facts or figures could be important? Make sure that you have them in your briefcase or easily located on the lap top.

So you have made some preparations, but how can you structure the response so you sound in control, competent and make it clear and concise?

Before we really start to work at our response we need to make sure that we really understand the question. So here’s quick check list.

1. Listen to the question carefully. Many people actually only listen to the first five to ten seconds of the question before they start working on the response. This can mean that we answer the question we thought we heard rather than the question which was asked. So listen all the way through before anything else. What if we are not sure precisely what the question actually is? Then we clarify. We can do this by asking the question back “If I understand you correctly what you are asking is …..” or “I am not sure if I understand exactly what it is you want me to comment on” or even “Could you repeat the question?”

2. Next, ask yourself the simple question “What do I know/think/feel about that?” If the topic is completely unknown to you just admit it. “I am sorry that is not something I am familiar with.” If it is something that we need to obtain further information on, then say so. “I am sorry I am not sure about the figures on that, I will check and get back to you” But if you know the answer, hold a point of view or have a decided opinion, then the answer to your question should be the main point of your response. And once we know what it is we are going to focus on, it is time to start constructing our reply.

Next we can start on our response.

1. Start with the main point of your response, what the facts are, what the situation is, in fact whatever your main point is.

2. Now explain the reasons for this. “The sales figures indicate that …; and I think this is because …”

3. Step three is bringing the answer to life with examples, “For instance in Cairns …”

4. Now just restate the main point again to round off and finish. Then stop talking.

This simple 6 step plan explains in straightforward terms what we know, think or feel, and why that is so. We make our information relevant with explanations of how it affects us or fits into the bigger picture before making it personal with anecdotes or quotations. Finally, restating the main point again signals to our listeners that we have completed our response

This time, when driving home instead of going over what you should have said, you can bask in the achievement of what you did say.


This article is based on information from Trischel’s Communication Seminar. Check out the website for more information.

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