The Master Communicator Blog

What to answer when you don’t like the question

Questions well-crafted and well answered are a staple of good communication. But sometimes you may want to avoid unwanted questions. How do you handle annoying questions with grace, poise, and charm?
August 14, 2023

It’s inevitable that at some point, you will be asked a question you don’t want to answer. Politicians and candidates for elected office understand this all too well. 

In my workshops and private coaching, I encourage my clients to invite questions to engage their audiences and demonstrate confidence in their topic. But there are times you may want to do the opposite—to dodge and redirect while keeping your cool. Maybe it’s a coworker, a relative or a random stranger who doesn’t know where to draw the line. You may not want to reveal details about your personal life, or you may not know the answer to a question, or you want to avoid cultural or politically charged topics in general.

Here are seven techniques to add to your speaker’s toolbox to avoid an array of unwanted questions that could get you in trouble.

1. Do you mind if I ask you a personal question?

Nosy questioners will ask permission to ask a personal question. It seems benign, even flattering, but it is not always in your best interest to answer. What if you said, “Yes I mind?” How do you decline while keeping the conversation positive? Most people say, “No, I don’t mind” to be polite, while they may be seething inside.

I hate that question. So, since my job is to help people communicate better, my advice is to respond by deflecting the question back to the asker with a compliment: “I am flattered that you are interested in my life, but let’s talk about how I can help you speak with impact instead.“

2. Bridge to an answer you want to give.

A tenet of mastering media interviews says that you should never feel obligated to answer a question as stated. Instead, give the answers you want to give regardless of the question. Henry Kissinger, former U.S. Secretary of State, would famously ask the White House press “Do you have questions for my answers?” 

The goal is to bridge to what you really want to talk about. Questioner: “Do you think interest rates will rise again this year? Your answer: “What the economy needs is more jobs that pay a living wage and help communities prosper.”

3. Plan your answer in advance.

You can anticipate difficult questions by formulating your answer in advance. This is common in job interviews where you may be asked about your managerial experience, for example, when you may have very little. You can swerve and pivot without blinking an eye if you plan ahead.

An answer like this one allows you to stay honest while sidestepping the question:  “Thanks for asking. One of the reasons I’m looking for positions like this one is that I anticipate much growth opportunity for managing teams and doing work I enjoy and do well.”

4. It’s OK to say you don’t know the answer.

Saying you don’t know takes courage. In virtually any scenario, it is the best policy to say you don’t know the answer to a question. Don’t wing it. If the answer requires research or consulting someone else, say, “I don’t have the answer right now, but I will get back to you.” Or, if you don’t want to pursue it, you can say “I don’t know about that but here’s what I do know,” and proceed to speak from your wheelhouse.

5. Be forthcoming about your discomfort.

No matter who’s asking what, you can decline an awkward question politely by telling them that they have made you uncomfortable, and then shift to another topic. For instance, if you are asked to speak about your former partner, you can say: “I feel very emotional about the breakup, so I’d rather not talk about it. But I’d love to hear about your new relationship/job/project.”

6. Ask your own question.

People ask awkward questions for a variety of reasons. Give the asker the benefit of the doubt and deflect the unwanted question with a question of your own. If they ask you why you quit your job, try something like, “Are you worried I won’t find a better job elsewhere?

7. Give a general answer to a controversial question.

If someone outside your immediate circle of trusted friends asks you about your personal political views around a controversial subject, take the high road with positive general statements about the importance of dialog and finding common ground.

Whatever direction you take, make sure you answer with a smile, and don’t shut down the asker by displaying anger. Respond with grace, poise, and charm to win over the most annoying questioners. 

Rosemary Ravinal

Business leaders and entrepreneurs who want to elevate their public speaking impact, executive presence, and media interview skills come to me for personalized attention and measurable results. I am recognized as America’s Premier Bilingual Public Speaking Coach after decades as a corporate spokesperson and media personality in the U.S. mainstream, Hispanic and Latin American markets. My company’s services are available for individuals, teams, in-person and online, and in English and Spanish in South Florida and elsewhere.

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