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When the Question Is a Challenge

However, there are cases when the question is really a challenge. The goal of the questioner may be to put you on the spot, or undermine you, or even topple you. You feel it. The audience feels it. The tension is high. The interest level is at its peak. The best procedure for a challenge question is to reposition the challenge by rephrasing on the issue. Let’s look at the most common issues. Then we’ll return to repositioning the challenge.

The Most Common Issues

  1. Priority

  2. Feasibility

  3. Cost

  4. Time

  5. Competence

Why are they the most common issues? Because they are the key factors driving business strategies and decisions. Look for them during Q&A. Knowing them beforehand helps you think on your feet.

The issue of priority is close to the issue of importance and should be looked for in that context. “Why are we doing this?” The issues of feasibility, cost, and time are easier to recognize when the question is asked. Competence is often connected to quality or confidence in future results.

The Challenge in a Small Meeting Environment

Let’s examine the impact of the challenge in a small meeting environment. You are making a recommendation to a board, an executive committee, or to a group of superiors. You are suggesting something new. That’s why it’s a recommendation. You need approval or agreement to go forward. Often it’s a way to solve a problem or to take advantage of an opportunity. It may involve a new product, a new direction, a new procedure, the purchase of new equipment, a new process, a new strategy, or creating a new department.

You present your recommendation, support it with evidence as to why it will work, and add the benefits that will accrue. Let’s assume the presentation is first rate.

The Classic Put Down Question

Then comes the Q&A session. Most of the questions will be informational in nature. But, sure as the sun comes up in the morning, you’ll be challenged with some variation of this question:

Why didn’t you think of this sooner?

Suppose you repeated or restated the question: “Why didn’t we think of this sooner?” Notice how that restatement traps you into a negative approach to your answer. You are almost forced to start on the defensive, such as: “The reason we didn’t get to this sooner is that we were committed to another project, etc.” or, “We didn’t think of it sooner because our budget structure wouldn’t permit it,” or, “We didn’t . . . because our priorities were different.”

Notice how negative it all is.

Make the Rephrase Neutral

You’ve just made a dynamite recommendation to do something great, and the momentum is sucked out of you by a negative questioner who traps you into being defensive. So what can you do? Simply rephrase on the issue. In this case, the issue is timing. The best lead in for your neutral rephrase is, “What about ._._.” Then add the issue, timing. It goes like this:

What about the timing of this recommendation?

What you have done is neutralize the question when you rephrased it. You are not playing games. The question was about timing. An audience will never take offense when the rephrase is neutralized. They will not feel the question has been changed. There is no trickery to this so long as you hold true to the issue.

Answering the Neutralized Question

You now begin your answer with why the timing is advantageous. Your answer begins:

Because of the . . . (Here you insert the conditions that make the timing propitious, such as economic upturn or downturn, positive cash position of the company, failures or successes by the competition, favorable publicity, etc.)

End your answer positively, with something like this:

The timing seems ideal to take the steps we have recommended.

The Tie Back

Go one step further; tie it back to your recommendation, and by this method turn a negative comment into an opportunity to reprise your recommendation.

Usually the transitional words “That’s why ._._.” lead you nicely into the tie back.

Here is a clean version of the whole exchange. Note how the answer alludes to the criticism of the original question but does not become defensive.

Question: I can’t understand why it took you so long to come up with this. This is your area of responsibility. What you are suggesting could have been done a year ago. Why didn’t you think of it sooner?

Rephrase: What about the timing of this recommendation?

Answer: I share your sense of the situation (indicate that you are referring to the questioner, either by name or gesture) in that I, too, wish we could have moved in this direction long ago. The opportunity seems so good. At the same time, we are blessed by the recent upturn in the financial markets, which makes the timing seem almost ideal for us to make this move now.

Tie Back: That’s why we are asking for your authorization to proceed quickly to put this project into motion.

Why It Works So Well

There is no confrontation. The questioner has not been put down. The rest of the people at the table feel the question was answered well. You may wonder, why add the tie back? It’s because you are there to sell a point of view, the recommendation. Your goal in handling the questions is to reinforce the points you made in your talk. The tie back helps you do that by keeping your viewpoint front-and-center during the Q&A.


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