Beyond Homina, Homina, Homina: Tackling Tough Questions

Those dreaded questions that put you on the spot—at business meetings, Q&As, job interviews, and salary negotiations—can be an introvert’s nightmare. If only you had a little time in your cocoon to collect your thoughts. But often that’s not an option. So what do you do?

Let’s start with what not to do: freeze up, get defensive, or laugh nervously. More no-no’s: blame the questioner or declare how clueless you feel. If your face turns red, your hands shake, or you sweat more than usual, don’t point it out, since your audience may not even notice. Instead of worrying how you come across, focus on informing, inspiring, or persuading your audience.

It’s well established that speaking on the spot is particularly tough for introverts. So prepare for challenging questions that you can anticipate, and practice your answers out loud. Better yet, get instant feedback by doing a dry run on audio or video (smart phones are great for that).

Once you show up at the place where you’re the designated oracle, here’s how to manage zingers—including the ones you couldn’t anticipate—by buying a little time to think, while sounding positive and confident.

1. Listen like a shrink. Use your introvert’s powers to zero in on details and go beneath the surface. Repeat or paraphrase the question you’re asked so the other party feels heard. “If I understood your question correctly,” you might say, “you’re asking me to comment on the societal effects of driverless cars. Is that right?” Use this technique for more complex or rambling questions or in cases in which some audience members may not have heard the question. You can also inquire about the question: “Just so I can focus my answer, what aspect of driverless cars interests you?” Instead of asking yes/no questions, use who, what, where, when, and how questions to get the other party talking. You will often find that a question was not what you originally thought it was. In general, avoid “why” questions, which can be an invitation down the rabbit hole, to borrow from Alice in Wonderland.

2. Comment on the question. “That’s a fascinating question. No one has ever asked me about driverless cars before. They’re an important development with many profound implications for society that have sparked my interest.” Using this technique gives you that much-coveted thinking time while complimenting the question asker. When the question is a tough one, acknowledge it confidently: “Doing full justice to this topic is going to take some time. Let me mull it over and get back to your question a little later.” In a public speaking setting, you can create a “parking lot” (possibly on a flip chart) for questions that you’ll tackle later or “offline.” No matter how complicated or ridiculous a question seems, embrace it. For example: “I’m glad you asked that. In the interest of time, I’m going to guesstimate that you can fit 5,000 cronuts in a driverless car—assuming there are no hungry passengers along for the ride.”

3. Say what you do know, shamelessly. Even if you find a question daunting, avoid apologizing. Rather than being ashamed for not knowing the answer on the spot, say what you do know—even if you’re not an authority on a topic. Act confident about your response (no matter how you feel!). “My initial thoughts about driverless cars on the road are….” Also consider telling a story, assuming it relates to the question. Here’s one way to dive in: “That brings to mind a time some friends and I were driving in Hollywood and we thought we saw a car without a driver. But it turned out the driver was just leaning over to pick up his phone—while going 60 miles per hour on a freeway. Yikes.” If you’re wondering how to craft a story, see “Storytelling for Introverts.” 

4. Dodge the question, positively. Offer to get back to your audience with more information. Here’s one approach: “I am intrigued by your interest in why the sky is blue. So I will do a little research and follow up with some thoughts.” Another tactic is to punt: “Who would like to take a first stab at that question?” Then you can chime in, since it can be easier to riff on someone else’s comment than to start from scratch.

5. Stay off slippery slopes. When an interviewer asks you pesky questions such as, “Can you live on the salary we discussed?” be careful what you say. Keep your language and attitude positive and be concise. View everything you say as on the record. In fact, to paraphrase Warren Buffett, consider how you would feel if your statement appeared tomorrow on the front page of your local newspaper.

You might also want to check out “Improv for Introverts” for a few tips on how to be present with your audiences while fielding the unexpected. Meanwhile, if you have any techniques to add to the list, please share them in the comments section.

© Copyright 2014 Nancy Ancowitz

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