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Managers' Tough Questions Answer Book
by Al Guyant and Shirley Fulton

(first five chapters)
Key Steps in Mastering
Tough, Trick or Hostile Questions

If you’ve ever been pinned to the wall by an unexpected attack from a co-worker, boss or client, you know the gut-wrenching stress that comes from having to defend yourself on the spot.  It’s an exasperating struggle to find the right words to ease the tension and gain understanding instead of ridicule or blame. 

Most of us simply aren’t accustomed to having to defend ourselves with "brief" responses, which is about all we’re allowed in today's frenzied business climate. And once out the lips, it’s darn hard to take back an unintended comment.   More than one career has been made, broken or stalled because of a poorly handled reply to an unexpected question.

These first four "theory” chapters show you how to minimize or altogether avoid falling victim to tough, trick or hostile questions.  They outline key steps and techniques for gaining control of the momentum of questions so the emphasis is on your positive information.  These techniques are demonstrated throughout the book in actual responses to specific questions that managers typically face.

People make a lot of embarrassing comments when responding under the stress of vexing questions.  When we’re under attack, our defenses kick in, our anxiety pumps urgent messages to the brain recommending “fight or flight.”  It’s a natural human reaction to want to deny, lie, evade or strike back in return.

Sometimes those actions work, but usually they produce miserable results.  This book demonstrates highly effective alternatives.  It demonstrates how the art of mastering tough questions can be learned by anyone.

But don't mistake technique for substance.  Don't think that rhetoric alone can succeed under the fire of hostile questions.  Don't become one of those managers who foolishly believe that a few tricky techniques will make them a silver-tongued executive.  They fantasize themselves side stepping verbal bullets like the James Bond character who dances unharmed among machine gun fire and exploding bombs.  In real managerial life, you can’t avoid all verbal wounds.  Nevertheless, your wounds don't have to be many, or fatal to your career or public standing.

To adequately defend yourself, you ought to have both substantive information and a good grasp of the methods set forth in this book.  You intuitively know this already; think of the times you thought of the perfect rejoinder -- 10 minutes too late.  You had the substance at hand but not the technique.   Skillful rhetoric combined with substantive responses will make your words very powerful.

1.1  Taking Steps to Master Hostile Questions

Mastery over hostile questions really is not difficult to learn.  Once you’ve done some practicing, it will come naturally, as it does for many people such as President Bill Clinton and Reverend Jerry Falwell.  Both are widely admired for their skills in communicating during controversy.  But they didn't get their skills by luck.  Learn the few techniques they've mastered, practice them regularly, and you will surprise yourself by how comfortable you feel with your responses. 

1.2  Understanding Tough Questions Leads to Mastery

To master hostile questions, the first step you must take is to understand them.  You must realize that many tough questions are not inquiries at all.   They are attacks, plain and simple.

They may attack your:

               Cause, Plan, Logic,

               Record, Actions, Omissions,

               Organization, Role, Position,

               Expertise, Credentials, Character,

               Premise, Assumptions, Information.

               And anything else in range.

Most hostile questioners do not seek information alone, if at all.  They usually attempt to damage, divide, embarrass, or defeat either you or your organization.  They are more like moves in a chess game than a discussion.  If you treat them as a discussion, you lose.  So, if they aren't really questions, how does a manager answer them? (See item 21.1 for related comments.)

1.3  Learn the Advantage of a Response over an Answer

Understanding hostile questions will help you learn why a response is often better than an answer.  A response gives you something to say without giving yourself away.  In this context, a response includes what you want to say, not what you think you are supposed to say (answer).  Answers deal with only the literal meaning of the question but a response goes deeper by addressing major concerns surrounding the question. You will leap forward in your command of tough questions when you grasp this point.

Forget what your elementary school teacher said when she told you to "answer the question."  You don't have to "answer" anything, unless you choose to do so.  This doesn’t mean you should never answer.  Just remember that you have a CHOICE -- answer or respond.

As a manager, you frequently have legitimate reasons for not giving direct answers to hostile questions.  Because most hostile questions include attacks, you have legitimate reason to treat them as the threats that they are.

Tough questions can be difficult to answer for as many reasons as there are people who throw barbs at you.  Perhaps intense or angry feelings prevent you from being as open or factual as you'd like.  There's no way to say "I'm firing you because I just plain don't like you!" or "I'm not finished with the report because it was a stupid request on your part to begin with and not worth my precious time!'' 

Other times you may not have an immediate answer, but know you should say something.  Consequently, you're stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place.  This is where half-truths, lies, exaggerations and guesses can unwittingly spill from even the most honest among us.

So what's the alternative? You need a response that will change the other person's perception of objective reality (the facts).  Don't mistake that for being dishonest or deceptive.  Objective reality is the hard facts of a situation, and each of us forms a different perception of a set of facts or objective reality.  The perception isn't reality or the "truth".  Therefore, leading a person to a new perception is merely asking that person to see reality or the facts from another view point, or perception.  The facts don't change, just our opinion of them.

Consider the difference between an answer and a response regarding a delay in one your assignments:

Question:        “Why aren’t you making more progress?”

Here's what an answer limited to the literal question might sound like:

“Our committee has met three times and hasn't agreed on which solution to implement.    Some committee members have offered recommendations that other members strongly oppose.  We don't know when we are going to reach agreement.”

Now notice how the response below addresses both the cause of delays and the underlying concern of what will it take to make progress, which is really the primary issue 

Response:  “These are complex problems, and there aren't any instant cures.  The committee members have different backgrounds and have pretty diverse viewpoints.  It's taking more time than we expected to sort through it all.  But we all agree that we want to it right the first time.  We meet again Thursday to narrow down the recommendations.”


See the difference?  The first quote simply answers the question and leaves a perception of contentious bickering.  The response, however, addresses underlying factors and portrays the committee as a group of knowledgeable but varied people struggling to solve a difficult problem.  The response also builds a perception of things getting done.

An effective response gives the listener the right fact and the right feeling.  It tells the truth, but goes further.  It gives depth, justification, and understanding.  Here's another example of a response:

Customer:      "I told you that your employee treated me rudely.  Are you just         going to let him get away with that?"

Manager:I believe that you have been offended, and I  promise you this will not happen again.  I'm going to look into this as soon as we're done talking here.  That is not the way our associates have been trained to deal with customers.”

The manager accepts the customer's view (perception) but without condemning a possibly innocent employee.  She does not answer whether she will discipline the employee as the customer expects.  The manager's response promises action and assures the customer that the company maintains high standards of treatment.

Imparting the right feeling like this is easy once you get the hang of it.  What's important is that you keep sight of your goals, and how you want the other person to react based on the perception .  (Refer to items 14.2, 20.1, 30.2 and 33.2 for examples.)

1.4  Setting Goals -- Maintain, Sway, and Neutralize

If you don't know what your goals should be in your responses, you are guaranteed not to achieve them.  You will fumble around and look confused, because you are.  You cannot master a tough question if you don't take the step of setting a goal for your response.  Response goals don't have to be complicated or terribly difficult, but you must have a one if you want to win instead of lose.

The easiest way to begin setting goals for your responses is to take a lesson from the public relations, advertising and political strategists, who believe there are three  powerful and attainable goals for swaying and holding opinion: 

Maintain the support you already have

Sway the undecided

Neutralize the unreachable

Here's a brief summary of these notions, and how they apply to the workplace:

      1.  Maintain the support you already have.   

Your responses should include points your friends can use to maintain and build upon their support for you and your views.  Your supporters are your political base, and like it or not, office politics is much the same as governmental politics, only smaller.  You need a base of friends and supporters to succeed.

      2.  Sway the undecided.   

Issue strategists believe that perhaps 80% of the public is ambivalent on an issue, not caring one way or another and not likely to pay much attention to discussion   That leaves 10 percent who are pivotal.  They are concerned but not fanatical and interested enough to pay attention to the discussion.

      Your workplace is probably no different.  Your audience may well include a few key people who haven’t yet formed an opinion, at least not a strong one, but are interested enough to have an open mind and pay attention to your ideas.  It is doubly important if these people belong to the “dominant coalition” -- individuals who are the opinion leaders and power centers of your organization.  (Refer to item 7.2  for related comments.)  Add to your response key facts and words that appeal to the reason and emotions of the undecided

      3.  Neutralize the unreachable.   

On any given issue there tend to be people with extreme viewpoints. Their hold on their opinion is strong and they aren’t likely to be swayed.  Society often refers to them as fanatics, zealots and extremists.

      This is also true of the workplace.  People with the relatively same knowledge, background and experiences can be all over the spectrum on a policy, program or idea.  Don't try to persuade the unreachable.  It’s better that your response neutralizes them so they don't undermine the support you’re getting from the first two groups.  Here’s an example:

“Some very knowledgeable and well intentioned people on one end of this issue are saying we are doing too much.  Some very knowledgeable and well intentioned people  on the other end are suggesting  we are doing too little.  I’m proposing we choose a middle ground that will enable us to do what’s just right.

So according to this theory, changing opinion doesn’t mean your response must transform the viewpoint of the entire group.  It doesn’t even mean your comments must directly change the viewpoint of a majority.  Changing a group's viewpoint starts out by creating responses that convince a comparatively small number of aware but passive people -- as little at 10 percent -- to reflect on the question and form an opinion they haven’t had.  

How do you reach this pivotal 10 percent?

          Avoid confrontation.

          Focus on the positive.

          Direct your responses at those who have an identifiable self interest in the subject.

          Tie your message to the context of the audience -- what’s in it for them?

          Pay particular attention to those who belong to your organization’s “dominant coalition”.  They are the ones who grasp the seriousness of the issue and can get others to follow.  See Question 7.2. for more on dominant coalition.                

      Keep control of your emotions so you are not reacting to hostile questioners (and thereby being controlled by them).

       Push the right emotional buttons that will generate cooperation and understanding.

      Avoid words and phrases that inflame emotions even more.

To maximize the power of your responses, include the three major persausive factors found in most great comments ranging from a sentence to a full speech.  Those three factors are:

Logos:       Logic, facts, numbers, analyses, studies

Ethos:       Emotions, feelings, illustrative examples, personal experiences

Ethos:       Ethics, standards, rules, laws, mores, and other behavior codes

If you just throw facts at people, their minds tire quickly of listening to you.  They may think your comments are "just a bunch of numbers that don't mean anything."  But you have only emotions or examples, your comments lack the depth that numbers can provide. However, even with the logic of numbers and the feeling from examples, your responses need something to tell the listener what is normal or what's too extreme.  That is why you need a reference to a code such as ethics, rules, laws or other standard set by whateve community you are dealing with.

See Chapter 4 for more on inflammatory words.  Also see items 11.2, 11.3, 18.1, 23.2, 23.6, 26.5, 28.2, 29.2, 30.1 and 32.3 for related comments. 

1.5  Taking Control by Bridging to Your Goals

Bridging is a tactic demonstrated throughout this book.  It is the most important technique for mastering difficult questions.  You've seen it used a thousand times by politicians, actors, reporters and other skilled communicators.  They consciously use bridging to steer discussions in the direction they want. 

With bridging, you use a bridge of words to draw attention away from the question and direct it toward the points you want to emphasize (again, a response instead of a simple answer).  Done right, the method transfers people's attention from your alleged mistake or problem to your correction or solution.  After all, rarely do people remember the question after it's been asked; it's the response they remember.  Bridging is the best means for doing that.


When you are being questioned, you almost always have at least some control over the situation, and perhaps more than you realize.  Just as people feel the right to ask you just about anything they want, you, in turn, have the right to answer in any way YOU want.

After you have briefly addressed the tough question, you can use some of these effective bridging remarks in almost any circumstance.  Sometimes you may judge it best to skip the first part and go directly to the bridge.  Listed below are simple bridges:  

   “I understand what you are asking; lots of people are concerned about that, but they need to know...”

     “An important point about that is...”

   “Your question is built on a common misconception.  Let me explain the real problem...”

   “The heart of the matter really is...”

   "Actually, that relates to a larger concern...”

   “If you look at the larger picture..."

   “It’s much more important to realize...”

   “That’s one of many concerns about this issue; however, we’re focusing on solutions, not just problems.  One of the solutions is..."

If you just react to the questioner, he controls you.  But ridging puts you back in control.    With practice, you can bridge without appearing to evade the question.  And don't evade for the sake of evasion.  Done too often it's annoying and eventually fails.  Usually it's best to answer the query with a few words then quickly bridge to your points.

Successful politicians (i.e., those who win re-election) learn early to employ bridging.  Those who don’t usually don’t survive the political arena.  Office politics are no different.

Points to remember:

   Bridging won't work every time -- no method does.

   Bridging won’t win over everyone -- nothing does.

   Bridging will work most of the time for most people in most situations -- nothing works better.

Proven bridging methods that boost your power over hostile questions are detailed throughout Chapter 2: "Using Bridging Formulas To Turn Tough Questions To Your Favor”.  They are demonstrated often in Chapters 5 through 33. 

1.6  Acknowledging Mistakes to Get Past Them

Common sense dictates that it's best to admit to a mistake, particularly when it’s glaringly apparent to others.  Don't pretend it didn't happen.  Not admitting to an obvious error anchors everyone's attention to past mistakes.  It prevents you from directing their attention to the future, where you have more influence.  Unfortunately, millions of bad responses, regarding issues of all types, come about by a decision-making process lacking a critical element: common sense about the obvious.

Refusing to admit to an obvious mistake also encourages people to wonder what else you're hiding.  In our society and work places, friends, bosses and colleagues don't grant forgiveness until we confess and atone.  Get rid of the drag by briefly acknowledging obvious errors; then bridge to corrective actions.  Switch the focus to solutions as quickly as you can.   See Chapters 28, 29, and 30 for sample responses and additional tips.  See items 14.3, 14.7, 23.1, 30.1 and 33.4 for specific examples.

1.7  Showing Understanding To Gain More Credibility

One way to insure that no one accepts your response is to ignore or insult other viewpoints.  A common characteristic of an ignorant manager is his or her compulsive insistence on "we-versus-them" answers to complex questions.

This type of manager reduces everything to simple dualities -- right or wrong, good or bad, friend or foe, guilty or innocent.  The other person is guilty, shady, arrogant, selfish, stupid, misguided and so forth.  If you bring up something to discuss that the thick headed manger doesn't want to hear, she bluntly says, "That's irrelevant.  It doesn't have anything to do with anything."  We all have worked for people like that.  A manager who responds that way loses credibility fast, even with friends and supporters. 

You on the other hand gain advantage with the people you seek to persuade by acknowledging other viewpoints as you respond.  You gain credibility by demonstrating your respect of the other person’s opinion.  Our society deems it a virtue to have an open mind and show respect for other ideas.  The virtue doesn't require you to agree with them, but recognize them respectfully.

Recognizing other views will alleviate tension that blocks other people from listening to your responses.  For example, how do co-workers, employees and customers respond when their feelings and comments are ignored?  With more intensity -- they argue more, listen less, and yell louder.  An acknowledgment won't eliminate their emotions completely, but it will reduce their determination to focus on them, again providing your response a better chance of getting through.  See items 2.1, 7.3. 15.2, 25.1, 26.4, 33.4 for specific suggestions, and generally review Chapters 5, 25, 27, and 33 for model responses and detailed techniques that include the advantage of acknowledgments.


1.8  Depersonalize Responses To Reduce Confrontation

Just about everyone has learned to make letters and speeches more personal (“touchy feely”) by using pronouns such as you, we, I and us.   Their use is intended to make recipients feel closer to the author or speaker.  In apparent frustration over this, Mark Twain long ago wrote:  “Only kings, editors and people with tapeworm have the right to use the inclusive word ‘we'.”

In responding to hostile questions, however, you may not want to introduce an emotional connection.  Use general third-person statement to create a buffer space between you and the antagonist.

      Question:        "Why don't you ever listen to me!"

      Personalized  response:  "I listen to everything you tell me."

      Depersonalized:  "I try very hard to hear what any employee has to say."

See how the personalized response intensifies the emotional stress between you and your antagonist.  In contrast, the depersonalized response subtly creates a buffer space between the two of you by generalizing attention to any and all employees, not just the one in front of you at the moment. 

Another example:

      Question:  “Is this chemical leak responsible for our illnesses?”

      Personalized response:  “I don’t doubt you have these illnesses.  I do doubt  your illnesses are caused by the chemical leak.”

      Depersonalized:  “I don’t doubt some people have illnesses.  But testing by both  government and independent laboratories has not detected a link between the two.”

The depersonalized response is less confronting because it does not directly threaten the questioner as the first response does, "I do doubt your illness..."  If the questioner wishes to challenge your depersonalized comment, he must begin talking about distant third parties.  Even that would help you further because it keeps the focus away from the questioner.

In the second example's personalized response, the respondent unnecessarily takes on responsibility for the government’s position that there is no proven link between the illnesses and chemicals.  By doing so, she invites criticism directed at her also, which otherwise could be limited to the findings reached by other people.

Which is better, personalized or depersonalized?  Neither.  What works for a given situation is best and what aggravates it is not.  If creating a closer feeling will help establish rapport and not likely threaten the questioner, then a personalized response probably will help you master the tough questions.

However, if your response will refute the questioner so strongly that he will be intimidated, you may be better off using the third-person depersonalized approach.  In regard to deciding whether you should use personal pronouns in responses, consider the rule of thumb for journalism (and some say, surgery, too), which says,  "When it doubt, take it out."  See items 5.1, 6.1, 13.1, 19.1 and 32.1 for additional examples of personalized and de-personalized responses. 

1.9 The Tactical Advantage of Telling the Truth

      When you formulate a response, don’t say it if it isn’t so!  That is isn't a lesson in morality; it's excellent tactical advice on handling tough questions.  If you decide on the spot to starting lying, you immediately weaken your capability to win the contest.

While you already know the truth, you don't know much about other information that you'll have to instantly invent to support your false statement as follow up questions are thrown at you.  At that point, you have to remember the first false statement, invent new information to support the first one, remember the new false information, and also think of what methods you will use to respond.  Not even an Olympic gymnast could keep her balance very often with that much to handle.

The methods and responses in this book assume you will tell the truth.  If the idea of telling the truth frightens you, your problems go far beyond your need for skill in handling tough questions.  Again, you need substance and skill; having only one of the two won't work.  The realization that you don’t have good answers because you don’t have good policies or programs should be a red flag.  Consider making changes or improvements so you can justify your actions when the tough questions hit.  Refer to items 11.2, 33.1 and 33.4 for additional examples and comments.

1.10  Building Skills By Preparation, Practice, Patience

If you read a diet book but never acted on its advice, would you lose a pound just because you read the book?  Of course not, and the same principal holds true with mastering tough, trick and hostile questions.  Just reading this book but taking no action will not make you as skilled as Bill Clinton or any other master of verbal gamesmanship.  You must put your good intentions into action by building skills through preparation, practice and patience.

Use the work sheets at the end of each chapter to reinforce what you have learned.  Taking a few minutes to do that after reading a new chapter will ingrain this knowledge in your mind for years to come. 

If you want to develop even more sophisticated tough-question capabilities, then get your own tough questions "Tool Kit."  To assemble your kit, get a stack of index cards, a rubber band, and a pencil (not pen).  This is your “tool kit."   Don't be deceived by its simplicity -- great things don't have to be expensive or complex.  (Hey, that's a great response to a tough question!)

 On one card, write down a thorny question that you'd have trouble answering. Using only pencil, on the back of the card jot down a few points you might include in your responses.  This is only draft, and you're using pencil, so you can and should change them later.  Don't try to get it perfect at this point or you'll lose the entire effect.

The beauty of this method is that the small space of the 3x5 card forces you to be brief -- so keep it brief.  Repeat this process with several more troublesome questions -- one question per card.  Place the rubber band around the cards and carry them and a pencil with you for the next few days.  When you have a few moments, pull out a card, ask yourself the question and practice giving your answer aloud but without reading it.

Do you doubt that you can boil down your message to the limited space of a 3x5 card?  Is your message  so complext and important that you require at least one full sheet of 8x11 paper.  If you think so, consider the phrase that "all emphasis is no emphasis."  If you don't select a few points to be most important, your listeners will make the selection for you, or they'll ignore you.  If leaders of government and coporations can learn to reduce the message to its bare essentials, so you can you, if you practice.  (Refer to items 14.4, 16.2, 18.6, 33.1, and 33.5 for additional comment.) 

1.11  Use Worksheet, Tool Kit To Expand  Repertoire

Practicing with the worksheets and your tough questions tool kit will expand your repertoire of great responses.  Make extra copies of the worksheets as you progress through the book, so you'll have extras on hand for convenient practice. Because practice will embed the new responses in your long-term memory, they will be available to you instantly any time you’re caught off guard.  It’s a great confidence builder.   Almost certainly you'll be less defensive.

Finally, the most important reason for taking time to prepare is to make the mistakes during your preparation so you don't make them, or as many of them, when the real time comes.  A sports team practices so it makes its mistakes before the game, not during it.  (Refer to item 15.2 for related comment.)

1.12  Be Patient To Avoid Discouragement

Be nice to yourself in your efforts to master tough questions.  Be patient.  You are developing new thinking habits while embedding new response phrases into your memory.  It will take awhile to create responses that you will like and will be comfortable with.

Moreover, it takes time to break old habits that you used to use in making impromptu responses, and then replace them with new habits from this book.  Although you are building new habits, you should not try to become like someone else whom you may admire for his or her skills in handling tough questions.

Always be you.  If you try to act like someone else while you are also trying to think of crucial responses while under hostile fire, you probably will mess up your replies or your act, one of the two.  You will either come across clumsy or you'll sound phoney and insincere.  So just be yourself while you concentrate on the method and substance of your responses.

Be patient.  Don't be discouraged by the first few times you feel awkward about employing your new skills.  They will come quick enough, just keep preparing and practicing.

-- Chapter 2 --

Using Bridging Formulas To Turn

Tough Questions To Your Favor

You can take control of hostile questions and turn them around to actually help instead of harm you.  The all-time best method for that is "bridging".  With this technique, you use a a short phrase or sentence to respond to the threatening question while you deftly move attention to the points you want to get across.

When you are under fire, it may seem too difficult to implement bridging, but you can do so easily by putting a few formulas to work.  Bridging formulas are simple frameworks or speech patterns to which you add your important information. Skilled use of these formulas will help you avoid the trap many people under fire fall into: rambling aimlessly while stumbling around trying to figure out simultaneously what to say and how to say it, and often burying main points and boring listeners.

Don't confuse the formula for the content;  a formula shows you only how to mix and deliver information.  But you have to have substantive content for it to be effective.  This chapter provides many impressive bridging formulas for you to test.  Find a few that fit your style.  Practice them, and after a while they’ll come naturally to you.

2.1  Remove Barriers with the 3-Step-Explanation

If they aren't listening, they can't hear you.  The best response in the world won't help if the people you want to reach are too upset to listen. 

This three-step bridging formula ranks among the best ever for removing emotional barriers that can block your message.  In three short response sentences you can regain your critics' attention while steadily and convincingly moving toward your explanation.

1.   "I understand what you are asking and why it concerns you so much."

2.   "Other people who had your experiences probably would feel the same way."

3    "However, I would like to explain a little about this problem...”

Each step in this response formula can achieve very specific results when a manager is confronted with hostile inquiries.  The first step (I understand) tells the questioner that you have heard him.   He realizes that he doesn't have to yell expletives to gain your attention -- you've said, in effect, I have heard you and I'm listening.  Countless surveys show that customers and employees often feel that "no one is listening"; therefore this step is very important for regaining their attention.

The second step (others would feel the same) tells the angry questioner that it's okay for him to think that way.  He's normal, because other people (our frame of reference in life) would think the same if faced with similar circumstances.  The second step can lessen the emotional barricade even more, because you’ve told him he isn't insane for saying such things.

It's risky to make the second step more personal by saying, "If that happened to me, I would feel the same way."  Although that may make both of you feel like great buddies, it may also cause the listener to jump to the conclusion that since you would feel the same way, you must be agreeing with his point of view.  By saying "others" would feel the same way, you reduce the chance of that misunderstanding.

The first two steps regain the angry questioners' attention.  Now you are ready for the third step -- leading to your explanation.  Keep control of the floor by immediately going into your explanation, don't pause for a moment. 

Picture yourself with a new employee whose work is not meeting your expectations.  You have just told him that he must improve or he won't pass probation.  He really needs the job and feels he isn't being treated fairly.

Tough question:  "I work very hard and don't goof around.  How can you make that judgment when you only see part of the work I do?"

Three-step response:  "I understand that you work hard, and I haven't seen you standing around wasting time.  Other new employees in your situation probably would feel the same way you do.  Your job is just as important to you as anyone's job is to them.  However, working hard by itself isn't enough; each employee needs to produce results that meet company standards.  You have not done that yet.  So let's focus on what you need to do so the quality of your work improves and you keep the job we both want you to have."    

This three-step formula works superbly as a prelude to other bridging formulas.  It is also a great stall when you need more time for your panic-stricken brain to assemble an intelligent response.  See the end of this chapter for a list of great short stalls.

2.2  Creating Rapport with Feel-Felt-Found Formula

Like the three-step-explanation formula, the feel-felt-found formula makes your response very personal while creating a rapport between you and the hostile critic.  However, the feel-felt-found formula brings you closer emotionally to the questioner. 

With this method, you tell the questioner that you have some idea of how he feels, and that you have felt similar concerns yourself.  If done honestly, you may impart to the critic that the two of you share common feelings, which may help both of you understand each other better.

Once the rapport has been established, you should move to the third stage.  There you note what you have found to be true in your past experiences, which were inferred in the I-have-felt part of the response.  Don't over reach using this formula.  For example, if you are a middle-class, white male talking to a low-income African-American female struggling to get out of poverty, you cannot feel what she feels.  But that doesn't mean you can't understand some of her problems (rent, food, car repairs, etc.).

  Make sure your attempt with feel-felt-found is based on genuine common experiences.  Think of what it would be like to tell a young employee that her position is being eliminated as part of company-wide job reductions.  She is very fearful of what will happen to her.

Tough question:  "Why did you guys bother to hire me if you knew that this might happen?  Why couldn't you have at least told me a couple months ago so I could have started looking for a job?"

Response:  "I'm sorry this is happening.  I feel I know what you are going through because it happened to me years ago.  I felt the same way myself when I lost my job.  I won't kid you and say it's easy, but I found that when it was all over I could see that it wasn't as bad as I though it would be.  It's hard for awhile but there are lots of ways to cope and move on to other jobs as thousands of people do everyday..."

When used with sincerity, the feel-felt-found formula is one of the best responses for creating a productive dialogue based on the common understanding revealed in your response.  As it is true that success breeds more success, initial understandings can lead to more understanding and then agreement.  (Refer to items 19.4 and 33.1 for additional examples and comments.)

2.3  Starting Safely with Past-Present-Future Formula

One of the easiest and safest bridges is past, present, future.  When asked a tough question for which you don't have a ready answer, use this formula to safely by drawing people's attention away from the past problem and moving it toward the future solution.

Past:  Tell what happened,

Present:  Explain what's happening now,

Future:  Outline what may happen next.

  One big advantage of this formula is that when you are ambushed by a really hostile inquiry, you can buy extra seconds to gather your thoughts by actually explaining how you are going to respond at that moment.

"I understand your question.  I'm going to summarize what happened, what's happening now, and what I expect may happen next...”

When used to the fullest, the past-present-future moves everyone's attention very powerfully to the future.  As an example, when a utility shut off electricity to an elderly woman in the middle of winter, contributing to her death, things looked very bad for the utility.  Here’s how one of its managers used the past-present-future formula most effectively.

Hostile question:  "How could you make a mistake like that?"

Response:  “The accidental disconnection was a tragic mistake and we take responsibility for it.  We have expressed our sincere regret and condolences to the family and offered any assistance.  We will be reviewing all of our procedures to see what changes need to be made so nothing like this can happen again.”

In a few words, the manger did a remarkable job of bridging from the terrible incident in the past to the “positives” in the future.  She sincerely apologized for the mistake, moved on to present corrective actions and then future solutions.  You certainly want to consult with your lawyer before admitting a mistake like this, but remember to balance the court of public opinion with the court of law -- both deliver verdicts. 

The big benefit of this approach is that it rarely backfires but almost always allows you to fill awkward silences until you’ve thought of a good rejoinder. Make sure you don’t waste too much time on explaining, apologizing or defending.  You’ll lose the precious seconds you need to maintain support and sway the undecided.  Don't ignore the past; but don’t dwell there very long because you want to move the focus to the “solutions” you have to offer for the future.  See items 7.3, 14.7, 20.3, 21.1, 23.1 and 23.6 for  specialized examples.

2.4  Fast Response with  Problem-to-Solution Formula

The method that moves the fastest from the hostile question to your positive-response goals is the problem-to-solution formula.  With just a few words, you acknowledge a problems exits and then immediately switch to the solution without spending time on explaining the problem.  You might even say, "I agree we've got a problem, but I'd like to go directly to a proposed solution."

Sometimes this method can turn a mistake into an opportunity for you to demonstrate something positive, like corporate responsibility.  For example, when asked by passengers, employees and the media to comment on the illegal dumping of waste into the ocean from a cruise liner, a company executive responded to environmentalists:

Hostile question:  "Don't you think you deserve to be fined for polluting?"

Response:  “The fine, if there is a fine, is of less importance to us than the actual incident being brought to our attention, because it allows us to take the appropriate action to insure this doesn't happen again.

Can you see how this method has the extra benefit of not repeating the negative suggestions of the hostile question?  Repeating the hostile words would only deepen a negative image, possibly establish it in the listeners' long-term memories.  With this approach, you get deserved credit for being forthright and then extra credit for offering a solution (or at least mitigation).  Refer to item 24.1 for another example.

2.5  Creating Super Responses with 4-Step PCST

If you like the Problem-Solution approach and know you have at least two minutes to respond, try the more elaborate four-step formula:  problem, cause, solution, timing (PCST).  Using the four steps, you can build a more solid and persuasive reason for your listeners to accept and possibly agree with your response.

At a normal rate, you can speak 200 words in 2 minutes.  A manager can say a lot in that time, if she is prepared and not wasting words.

Trick question:  "Why has your department missed its deadlines for the past three months?"

Response:  "We missed three of five deadlines despite some pretty hard work.  The primary causes were vendors delivering supplies late, and two employees who were out on unexpected medical leave.  One of the solutions we're putting in place is to call vendors to remind them of their obligation two days before we expect delivery.  We are also pulling in an employee from another department; he used to handle this work and is very good at it.  We’ve also gotten another employee to agree to postpone his vacation a month.  We'll have the rest of the plan in place by Friday.”

After directing everyone's attention to the solutions, you can exit by describing the three choices in timing to implement the solutions.

   Cite solutions that have been implemented.

   Point out solutions that are being developed.

   Forecast when future solutions will be ready.

Because this formula starts with “knowns” -- a problem and then a cause, it allows you breathing room to pull together your thoughts while also building the foundation to support your solution and timing.  The first two steps are safe, because you cite what generally is already known.   It's the wording of the solution that needs a minute to take shape in the back of your mind.  See items 7.1, 14.3 and 23.8 for an additional example and comment.

2.6  Defend Against Ignorance with SIA Formula

Questions are even more difficult when the questioners don't know the background or understand the issues.  The simplify-illuminate-advance (SIA) formula works effectively with critics who don't share your knowledge or appreciate the complexity of your work.  Use this formula to help make their comprehension possible.

Simplify:  You simplify the discussion in one or two sentences.  Sometimes an analogy will achieve that.

Illuminate:  You illuminate (re-educate) the antagonist explaining -- in your terms -- a few simple facts and principles that can be readily understood by most people.

Advance:  The third and most important step is to advance your points, which help reveal the complexity of your assignments.  The more you advance your points here, the more you undo the false premise that endangers you as long as it exists in the listeners' minds. 

After you are sure that at least some of the listeners have understood your explanation, move to your recommendations.  The first two steps obviously set up the listeners for the third.

Tough Question:  "Doesn't the higher carbon dioxide levels prove we have global warming that will damage crops?"  

Response:  “The average CO2 level is irrelevant without knowing the high and low of each day.  It's like telling a cop who caught you speeding at 90 that your average speed since starting at zero was 45 miles per hour.  What do the numbers mean?  Well, the bottom-line is that...”

SIA works best when you can prepare ahead of time.  If caught off guard, you may want to employ one of the easier formulas. Refer to items 25.2, and 33.3 for additional examples and comments.

2.7  Generalizations or Specifics: All Purpose Antidotes

Two effective all-purpose antidotes to hostile questions are natural opposites: generalities and specifics.  These are as easy to use as they are to remember.  If your nemesis asks you a nasty specific question, you might be able to dodge it by employing generalities.  In reverse, if you are attacked with a generalized inquiry, you may be able overcome it by citing specifics.

General question:  "With all of the complicated statistical stuff involved in the Quality Improvement fad, and all of the QI failures in other places, how can you expect it to work here?"

Specific response:  "Some of the Quality Improvement methods can be pretty complex but it doesn't always have to be that way to work well.  If, for example, we look at how teams can be more effective than standing committees, we could gain a lot in that area alone.  The advantage of teams is that they..."

Instead of responding to all of the alleged problems of QI techniques, the response above goes from the general issue to a specific example in one sentence.  Without pausing for anyone to interrupt, the response moves directly to illustrating the advantages of teams over committees.  The specific response does not get stuck in the quagmire of the general condemnation but instead uses the hostile query as an opportunity to sell the best parts of the QI methods.  Picture yourself as a listener at the table and think how much you would rather hear a short explanation of teams instead of a quarrelsome debate over alleged QI failures and numerous complex QI methods.

Specific Question:  "Why you want us to continue the team fad when we all saw  that process bombed last year?"

General response:  "I certainly wish the QI teams would have worked better last year, but I also recognize that the team approach is like other QI methods that can produce great results once we master them.  It certainly has been proven in many organizations that efficiency and customer satisfaction can increase significantly when QI methods are fully developed"

In the general response, you move from the specific problem to broad generalities which contain many positive examples for you to bridge to.  (Refer to items 14.5, 14.6 and 32.1 for an additional examples and comment.)


2.8  Control Damage with Wrong, Right & What It Means

When all hell breaks loose and tough questions bombard you from every direction, you may elect to employ this formula, which is akin to battlefield triage:  let go of what's gone and save what you can. This is called what we did wrong, what we did right, and what it all means.

You do this by letting go of issues that are damaged beyond hope.  In other words, you don't defend what won't be accepted by the people who support you or the undecideds whom you wish to sway your way.  Next, you point out what you have done right.  This lays the foundation for rebuilding your image and status.  You bring this all together by explaining "what it all means" to create a new perspective.

Here's a space agency executive using this formula.

Hostile Question:  "Doesn't this last failure mean the program is faltering?"

Response:  “We do very difficult things and sometimes we have failures.  In 52 missions over the last 5 years, there were only three or four major failures.  I don’t think our charter is to guarantee 52 successes out of 52 try’s, because it would say we’re loading the deck and weren’t pushing the boundaries.”

Note that the response does not refute or explain away all of the criticism, which would be nearly impossible for anyone.  But the space agency executive does create a feeling of prudence and then acceptance by using this formula to focus on the larger picture.

Inexperienced managers flounder when they futilely spend their limited response time trying to salvage what's damaged beyond repair.  Not only do they fail to resurrect what's dead and gone, they waste short-lived opportunities to highlight what was done right.  And they never get to the essential goal of giving their own perspectives about the problems.  Those compelling reasons make it clear why this formula, or one like it, should be used when all hell breaks loose and you are left with saving what you can.

Some times you cannot escape tough questions without some bumps and bruises.  Too often inexperienced managers fantasize that they could get away unscathed if they only knew a few clever lines of rhetoric.  That is just not true in real life.  But you can do effective damage control with responses that cite what you did wrong, what you did right, and what it all means.  (Refer to items 14.3 and 30.1 for additional examples.)

2.9  Talk About the Question Is Last Resort Bridge

What about the awful moment when you don't know how or where to start a response?  You don't have a good understanding of the problem and almost nothing about what caused it.  You don't want to look foolish by misstating it. On the other hand, perhaps you know that merely listing the causes would be explosive.  Maybe the solutions on the table are more like land mines than anything else.  How do you handle this situation?

Simple.  Talk about the question until you think of a bridge to safe place.  Talking about a question instead of answering a question is an art that successful high-level executives and politicians (is there a difference?) master early in their careers.

Talking about the question instead of the answer does not come without a price.  It buys you time but it will quickly irritate your questioners if that's all you do.  Use this as last resort.

How do you "talk" about a question, without talking about the issue?  Talk about the who, what, when, where, or how of the question itself.  Read below and see how easy it is:

"Your question is very important to me;  I've been greatly concerned about it for a long time.  As anyone can see, we must be very careful how we address this question.  The implications are serious. You are asking about one of the most important responsibilities I have, and if we are going to talk about it now, we need to consider...”

"The question you just asked touches on problems that worry a lot of people I know.  They are asking some of the same questions.  In order to answer them, we need to know more about where the problem exists and how long it really has been going on.  We need the best advice we can get from people close to the problem itself..."

"That's one of those tough questions that's easy to ask but extremely complicated to answer.  The question is tied to the experience and knowledge of hundreds, maybe thousands of people in dozens of locations. I’ve learned a lot from them and I'm still getting more information.”

"With hindsight, I'm sure all of us wish we would have raised and answered that question long ago.  It's obviously time that we respond, because it is too important to delay much longer.  At this time, I can provide a little insight but will have to defer other parts until we get more complete information.  What I can say is that..."

Don't use the talk-about-the-question formula only as a dodge, because that approach won't work very well with most hostile questioners.  This formula works best as a longer-lasting stall while you organize your thoughts on how to bridge to the points you think up during the delay.  Imagine you are in a board meeting and an outside executive catches you off guard by asking point blank why so many errors have appeared in your department's marketing brochure.

Hostile question:  "Have you even looked at the stuff you are mailing out?  Does anyone bother to proof this embarrassing material?"

Response:  "You've asked a tough question that has to be answered.   A lot of people have been asking themselves how those mistakes could have gotten past our editing and proofing process.  I'm sure our customers are wondering the same thing.  And I have been concerned with finding out what needs changing or fixing so those errors are stopped.  (Up to now, you haven't said anything substantive and therefore haven't made a substantive mistake.  And now you find a bridge to get out of your predicament.)  Although I wasn't prepared to talk about the brochure errors in detail today, I can say that, yes, we do look closely at marketing materials, yet obviously not well enough.  However, we have begun looking closer and more thoroughly at every item.  We won't stop this effort until we fix the process and the brochures come out error free.  I will keep you informed of our progress."  

Of course, you can't keep the stall going for more than a minute or two, but that's plenty of time to collect your thoughts and build a bridge to safety.  Try it a few times with co-workers.  The effectiveness of this seemingly unglamorous formula is quite surprising the first few times you use it. (Refer to item 7.3 for related comment.)

2.10  When all else Fails, Stall Some Way, Some How

When absolutely nothing comes to mind, when no formula fits the question, your mind goes blank, and you are too upset to talk about the question, just stall for time somehow.  It may seem like an hour, but stalling for 10 or 20 seconds can give your brain enough time to come up with something intelligent to say.  If you try to speak substantively before you have come up with something worthwhile, you are guaranteed to fall flat on your face or your butt--take your pick, the result is the same.

Here are some of the time-tested stalls that work very well -- indeed everyday -- for people who are masters of handling tough questions.  They provide examples of how to stall in different ways for the same question.  (Refer to item 13.1 for related comment.)

  Restate the question as though you are clarifying it.


  Ask the questioner to clarify the question.  (Then you can think awhile).

  Rephrase the question to your favor.

  Use an opening phrase like:

"I am frequently asked that question wherever I go"  (old cliché' that still works).

"I did not hear you clearly.  Would you ask that again?

"I'll be covering that point shortly..."

      Tell an anecdote about the issue

"Before I answer that, I'd like to tell    you a brief story about..."

Won't the questioner and other listeners see the transparent stalls?  Perhaps, but so what?  This is your last resort and you don't have much to lose.  The worst case is that someone would accuse you stalling.  Again -- so what?  You could say that, yes, you were stalling a moment so that you could collect your thoughts and say something a bit more intelligent.

Remember that you goals are maintain the support you have and to persuade the undecided to believe you. Neither group will turn against you just because you use an obvious stall to compose yourself.  Don't worry about what hostile unreachable group.  No matter what you say to them, they are determined not to like it.  So don't bother trying to accommodate them in your response.

Although the stalls by themselves don't provide you with a framework on which you can hang your information as do the bridging formulas, the stalls nevertheless keep you in control of the conversation.  As long as you control the flow of words, you limit the hostile questioner from beating you up more.  The generic stalls also have the additional benefit of buying you time during which you can come up with something substantive. (Refer to item 7.3 for related comment.)

2.11  If Nothing Else, Take Control When Under Fire

When under fire from hostile questions, always remember to take control some way.  This applies for every situation and formula given in this chapter.  Even if you can't recall any of the formulas from this chapter, remember to tell yourself to take control in whatever way you can.  If you don't, you will get mowed down eventually.

After you get control (even if only by asking for everyone's attention and patience for a moment), remember to think of a goal or direction where you want to take the discussion.  Trust yourself to think of something.  While it may seem like an eternity, most people will think of something worthwhile in about 20 seconds, which is typically how long most bridging formulas take, or how long most stalls will gain for you.

Be confident that you can and will get through the tough question.  It can't last forever.  And as long as you keep looking for bridges, you'll keep finding your way out of the hot spots.

- Chapter 3 -

Exploiting Weaknesses

in Tough Questions

No matter how intimidating they seem to be, all tough questions have weaknesses you can exploit.  But before you can do that, you must first to recognize the type of question you are dealing with.  This chapter identifies and analyzes major types of hostile questions and demonstrates how to thwart them by taking advantage of  their weaknesses.

Knowing this information will give you immense power over your hostile questioners.  It's like being a fighter pilot with radar fighting an enemy who doesn't have it.  You are able to see the shape of what's coming, and thus will know how to maneuver out of harm's way while he can't see what's happening.

With the knowledge from this chapter, you'll find yourself saying mentally "Oh, yes, I recognize that type, and now I know just how I'll handle it...."

3.1  The Benefits of Ducking Hypothetical Questions

When you hear “what if,” get ready to duck; a hypothetical question full of supposition and assumption is on the way.  By answering a hypothetical question, you give the hostile questioner the chance to follow up with more "what ifs" until you finally stumble. 

The weaknesses of hypotheticals are their unproved assumptions about the future.  Because neither you nor the questioner is control of the future, the best answer is to say you don't want to assume anything and you can't predict the future.  Point out the "iffy" premise of the question, noting there are numerous uncertainties.  Suppose you were at a department meeting to discuss your plan to overcome your section's production lag, and your nemesis asks this taunting question:

Hypothetical question:  "What if we have a lot of employee turnover next year or the union contract is changed?  How can we be sure your section will meet its deadlines and not slip again?"

Answer:  "That's a hypothetical question based on a lot of unknowns.  If any of those factors change, or if any other major surprises happens, we will have to regroup and adjust our plans accordingly.  But for today I'd rather stick to what I know for sure.  Let me explain my plan based on what we really do know..."

The result of this response is that you'll get back on track very quickly while also having adroitly resolved a tough question thrown at you in front of your peers.  The first part of the comment presents a logical basis for NOT giving a substantive answer.  The second part of the response swiftly moves everyone's attention back to where you want it to be, your proposals to catch up on the work schedule.

Another major benefit of this response is that you don't pause for the questioner to speak; you quickly bridge to where you want to go.  In most cases, rules of etiquette will inhibit her from interrupting as you bridge back to your topic.  However, if she ignores those and attempts to pull you back to the hypothetical question, others at your meeting may voice their displeasure at her wasting time discussing uncertainties that aren't relevant today. 

But if the group or the meeting leader doesn't cut off her second effort, you can still avoid answering the hypothetical by turning it around.  You do that by asking her what specifically she sees happening and why.  Then you (and possibly others) may ask her to explain her predictions more, which probably will cause other colleagues present to voice their disagreements with some of her views.  That puts the conflict between her and other staff present, but keeps you out of it.

  However, if you choose (you always have a choice) that for some important tactical reason you want to answer the hypothetical, make sure you create a back door.  Condition your answer like this:

Conditional Answer:  "I really don't like to deal in hypotheticals because any big change in circumstances could alter my answer entirely.  In response to your hypothetical question, I'll give a hypothetical answer that shouldn't be generalized to any other set of circumstances.”

The conditional response gives you a back door through which you can easily escape hostile follow-up questions.  If the challenger attempts to pick apart your hypothetical response, remind him that what you just said was hypothetical and the real answer depends on future circumstances that no one there knows.   For additional examples and responses involving hypothetical questions, refer to items 8.5, 22.3, and 24.5.

3.2  Side Stepping the Trap of Speculative Questions

The risky speculative question is a close cousin to the hypothetical question.  Your antagonist asks you to speculate about a future outcome (while he's getting ready to argue with your answer).  Speculative questions often include such traps as "Isn't it likely that..." or "What's your best guess..."

Even if you are qualified to speculate, is this time the time and place to do that?  If the questioner is being hostile towards you, then give him a response rather than an answer.  Of course, there are many situations where speculative answers are just fine, where you are free to openly discuss possibilities.  But if you are in a situation where your antagonist may use your speculation against you, it's best to not give him a club with which to hit you in the first place.

Suppose you were talking with other mangers and a few subordinates, one of whom has been a thorn in your side for years.  He casually asks you about possible job cuts.

Speculative question:  "Whose job do you think will be eliminated?  How many are going to be cut?"

Response:  "We're talking about people's jobs and paychecks.  I don't want to speculate about something so important.  I want to be careful to keep my comments limited to what I know.  I don't want to guess about something and cause unfounded rumors or worse."

In addition to the obvious rumor potential you answer would have, it would also likely become distorted as it was passed along the grapevine and back to the CEO's office.  There is no planning or operational need for you to speculate whose job, if any, might be cut.  The biggest benefit of this approach is what you don't get, a lot of grief later caused by your speculation about serious concerns, which fed rumors and emotional reactions.

The antagonistic may not be pleased and suggest that you are holding back on what you know.  If so, tell him that he is free to believe or not believe whatever he wishes; you still are not going to participate in potentially harmful and pointless speculation.  The respect for you by others present probably will rise a notch as you demonstrate your character (not a rumor monger) and intelligence (smart enough not to walk into a trap).   See  items 24.5 and 29.1 for more on responding to hazardous speculative questions.

3.3  Grab Control of Questions Based on Misquotes

The question based on a misquote of you ranks at the top of the "false premise" inquiries by employees, customers, bosses, and colleagues.  The antagonist misquotes one of your earlier statement; he begins with "Well, didn't you just tell us that...”  You realize he's got everything backwards and you can't let the misquote stand as truth.   But how to do that without creating more tension?

If you say he wasn't listening, you start a second argument over whether he can prove he was paying attention.  If you tell him he didn't quote you correctly, he may quarrel over how accurately he quoted you.  Worse, you might sound like you are calling him a liar.

If you tell him he didn't understand your comment, you imply he's pretty stupid, among other things.  There is an honest and easy way out by using the question's intrinsic weakness.  The question is vulnerable to the power YOU have to define what YOU meant to say.

Question:  "How can you sit there and tell me that none of what I turned in was acceptable?  Didn't you just tell me you haven't even reviewed it?

Response:  "Tom, if that is what you heard, I didn't say things very clearly.  I'm sorry it came across that way; it's not what I meant to say.  Let me tell you what I intended to get across...."

By taking the blame for the "misunderstanding," you regain control of the discussion.  With that control, you re-state your position. The questioner has little choice but to let you clarify what you meant to say.  Even if you know for certain that you had spoken very clearly and the questioner really has gotten it all backwards, it does you no good to point that out to him.  You would only create another issue to argue about.  If you ever settled the second argument, you would still need to go back to try to settle the first.

By deftly side-stepping useless quarrels, you achieve a second chance to drive home your points.  The questioner won't know what happened but will realize that he wasn't correct and hasn't got much to argue about either.  Lastly, your colleagues will be awed by your ability, and ask you later "How'd you do that?"  Refer to item 25.5 for an additional example and comment.

3.4  Disarm Leading Questions Aimed at You

The name of this false-premise question implies its threat -- it is loaded with something dangerous.  Unless you disarm this question, it may blow up in your face.

The antagonist fills the query with negative terminology and suppositions that uninformed observers might believe unless you unload the question.  The weakness in the loaded leading question is that you can dismantle it quickly by showing that its primes aren’t correct.  Having done that, you are free to take the conversation in any direction you want.

Be sure not use the hostile questioner's negative terms in your response, because that only reinforces the impact he's trying to have.

Question:  "With all the grievances filed against your division, why haven't you done something to improve the bad morale?"

Response:I want to correct the premise of your question.  The number of grievances in my division is about the same as others in the long run.  I continue to meet individually with most of my staff, and most tell me things are going fairly well.  We've had more incoming transfer requests than ever before.  I'm looking forward to hiring some pretty good talent for the two new vacancies."

See how the response does not repeat the allegation, even when refuting the false premise.  If you repeat a false premise, you drive it deeper into the minds of the listeners.  The primary result from this approach is that you can dislodge the negative perception of "bad morale" with the picture of a manager on top of things and in communication with her staff.  For more on turning around false premise questions, see items 9.2, 10.4, 14.1, 21.2 and 23.2

3.5  Beating Coatholder Questions Without Fighting

  A 'coatholder' holds your coat while goading you into a brawl with another person by claiming that person said something bad about you. Coatholders can be employees, colleagues, and even bosses who ask your reaction to harsh comments supposedly made about you by third parties.

Coatholder questions serve little purpose except to cause arguments and hard feelings.  The weakness in the coatholder question is your convenient ignorance -- you haven't heard the comment, so you don't really know what was said.

Coatholder's Question:  "Al, did you hear that Mr. Benton said your cost estimates weren't worth the paper they're printed on?"

Response:  "Tom, I haven't personally heard that  from Mr. Benton and I'd rather not respond to something like that until we’ve had a chance to talk...”

If the coatholder got the gossip third hand and you want to be firm in your response, consider saying this:

Response:  "Tom, I don’t know what Mr. Benton said, and really, neither do you.  Let’s not get ourselves in an uproar over rumors.”

It takes strong self-discipline to make this method work, because your anger is triggered quickly upon hearing supposed slanders from absent parties.  However, you will be glad you held your tongue.  (Refer to item 29.2 for an additional example and commnet.)

3.6  Making Limited Choice Questions Work for You

Some hostile questioners will try to corral you into a trap by building limits into the false premise.  The either-or question insists there is only one way or another, and nothing in between (my way or your way). 

The yes-or-no question demands the same choice (The customer is right or wrong).  The weakness is obvious: work problems are not that simple.  The same goes for question that is based on a premise that is too extreme to be credible.  Step outside these questions by pointing out the false limitation.

Question:  "Either I work faster and make more mistakes or I go slower and have better quality.  Which do you want me to do?"

Response:  "It may seem that it has to be speed or quality, but those aren't the only choices.  We can go slow and do good work or bad, and it's possible to move faster and still maintain quality.  If we keep doing the same things, yes, we'll get the same result.  So let's look at doing the work differently and also try to save time while improving quality.  We won't know until we review all the option."

Refer to items 8.5 and 20.2 for additional examples and comment.

3.7  Answering Helpless Victims Without Feeling Guilty

It's usually an employee or a frustrated customer who poses the helpless victim question:  "How can I live (feed my family, pay the rent, or do my job) if you let this happen?"  The helpless victim wants you to feel guilty, and use your power to help her in a way you shouldn’t.  Many helpless victims get through life by instinctively pushing off their responsibilities onto other people, often through pleading questions.

No doubt some of the helpless victims really have serious problems.  Nevertheless it's a slippery slope once you step toward answering what they should decide or how they should solve their personal crises.  Stick to your managerial roles and advise them where to get help with the other issues.

Is that being cold and uncaring?  Not really.  A helpless victim really doesn't want you to make his decisions or tell him what to do.  Nevertheless, if you did answer the victimhood questions, and his subsequent actions led to more grief, who do you think he will blame? 

The weakness in the helpless-victim question is the hidden premise that tries to push the victim's responsibility onto you.  Your response should show him where the responsibility is, and always will be -- on the questioner.

Question:  "What am I supposed to do?  Should I pay the rent first or make the car payment?  Maybe you think my son should quit college and get a job?"

Response:  "I don't underestimate your situation; I know it's darn tough,  but only you can make decisions about running your life.  I can refer you to counselors who may help you make those decisions.  My duty is to meet the responsibilities of this position.  Only you can answer the other questions.”

Certainly you can offer to help someone and support them with whatever means you have, but that does not mean to take on his responsibilities to make his own decisions and be responsible for his own life.  Don't "enable" the helpless victim by answering his pleading questions with suggested decisions.  Give options and choices but leave him responsible for deciding.  (Refer to items 15.1, 16.4, 16.6, 18.6 and 21.4 for additional examples and further comment.)

3.8  Exerting Power Over Multiple Part Questions

New managers with little experience facing hostile questions tend to age rapidly when clobbered by multiple-part questions.  Because the novice manager still believes she has to answer all the questions, the multiple-part query can cause real panic.

But learn to love multiple-part hostile questions, for they are kinder and gentler (and weaker) than all the rest.  Why?  Because you can pick the part to which YOU want to respond, and ignore the rest.

Most questioners and listeners will not be able to recall what parts you don’t answer, particularly if you bridge to something else.  The more turbulent the discussion, the better this works. 

If you were at a raucous staff meeting, and a rival snipes at you by asking:

Question:  "Why was your report so late, and how come I didn't get a draft to review?  Are you really sure you've gotten enough imput from other departments?"

Response:  "I sent an email message to all eight departments, asking for their comments as soon as possible.  I  received two by Monday, and one really helped improve the report.  Tom Getlewski said he wanted a new section of specific procedures.  I agreed to meet with him.  Would anyone here like to attend?  What do you think we should tell him we plan to discuss?

This response ignores the sniper's question of lateness and why she supposedly wasn't sent a draft copy.  The response instead concentrates on your goal (showing that you asked for input) and then bridges to your meeting with Tom Getlewski.  You thus picked the one part of the question you wanted to comment on, not the others that might damage you and open up new lines of trick questions.

If the sniper tries to get you back into the open field by returning to parts of the question you haven’t answered, tell her you want to clear up this first point, then you’ll get back to the others.  Odds are you'll never get back to the sniper's hostile attack before time runs out at the meeting.

If the hostile questioner stubbornly won't relent in her antagonistic questioning, you can reverse the pressure by using a tactic often used by the Pentagon's military spokespersons.  Sometimes when a lengthy multiple part question is asked, one of the Pentagon staff takes down each part of the question.  The spokesperson responds to each segment, at length.  In a room full of reporters all wanting to talk -- or at least get on with things -- this turns the room against the questioner.  It’s something you should consider doing only as a last resort.  If you really wish to get others in your meeting to turn against the hostile questioners' waste of time, make a point of taking down each part of the question, so you show how seriously you’re taking the questions.

Beginning for lengthy response:  “You've asked a bunch of questions, so let me write them down so I don't forget...Okay, you want to know why the report is late, why you haven’t seen it, and if I got sufficient feedback from everyone.  Does that cover it?  Well, I hadn’t planned to revisit every facet of this action in this forum, but if that’s what everyone wants, I’ll be happy to.  I'll take them one at a time...”

If it’s not the boss asking, this would be a good time to look at the boss for guidance or approval, or look around the room, giving people a chance to butt in and save you by saying this stuff should be handled in another forum.  This also reinforces your role as the reasonable person.  It also reinforces the perception that your antagonist is being unreasonable and keeping everybody from work/lunch/home and hearth.  If nobody saves you, and you see no other way out, proceed and keep smiling.  Refer to item 25.7 for an additional example and comment.

3.9 Nullifying Insults of Attack Questions

The insulting attack question isn't really a question: it is a direct attack put in question form.  They usually come from angry customers or people who want to make you look bad by insulting you:

“Don't you ever do anything right there?"

"How the hell can you keep a job with such incompetence?"

"Do you know what everyone thinks of your lousy service?”

Because the non-question is an attack, don't respond as though it were a question.  Unless it is imperative to your job or organization to blunt the assault, simply ascertain the issue at hand and address just that. 

Take a slow deep breath, ignore the insult, and discuss the facts and solutions.

Attack question:  "Aren't you supposed to 'serve' the public?  Do you call this 'service'?  Didn't anyone ever teach you how to do your job right?”

Response:  "Mr. Jones, your shipment was late because the delivery truck transmission broke.  I am very sorry this happened.  By the time we got another truck over there, we were already late.  I can't change that but I do want to make it up to you by..."

Too often new staff members and managers alike are compelled to feel they are supposed to answer the literal question.  They futilely attempt to explain that they do serve the public quite well most of the time, or that they were trained thoroughly, and so on.  But that only makes things worse, as it gives the angry customer more to argue about.  Instead of lasting only five minutes, the unpleasant incident will go on for 30 minutes.  And probably nothing will be settled then either.  Indeed, the customer probably will be even angrier.  Remember that attack questions are rhetorical, so just bear with the situation, and respond to the main issue while the angry customer vents his emotion.  Refer to items 21.1 and 23.1 for additional examples and comments.

 Chapter 4 -

Don't Throw Fuel on the Fire

Keeping Incendiary Words out of Your Responses

The words you choose for responding to tough questions can mean the difference between putting out a fire or fanning the flames higher.  Angry questioners become incensed when they hear certain words or phrases they feel insult or demean them, or otherwise make them look bad.  They rarely think about the actual offending words, they just react at the emotional level. 

Well, it should be easy then.  Right?  If you know a word or phrase might fan the flames of anger even higher, just don't say it!  But it isn't that simple.  Though this chapter lists many words and phrases you should avoid, just reading it won't do you much good by itself.  Your vocabulary is deeply rooted in with your speaking habits, developed over many years -- words often pop out without much thinking.

When you are being hit by tough, trick, and hostile questions, your habits automatically take over as your emotions rise.  Even if you could remember the words and phrases to avoid, it would hard for you to avoid them.  That's because you haven't developed and practiced other choices to build new habits.  Take ten minutes to re-read this chapter monthly for six months.  Put it on your calendar as a reminder to replace the aggravating words and phrases with neutral ones.  (Refer to item 13.1 for other comments on word and language choices.)

Here are words and phrases to avoid.  Each one is followed by alternatives, but you will be better off if you modify them or invent new ones to suit your style.  It is imperative to your effectiveness that your responses blend in with your natural speaking manner.

4.1.  You aren't paying attention.  You aren't listening.

If you include these comments in your responses, you won't add one bit of information to the discussion, but it sure insults the listener.  Who first used those scolding phrases?  Your parents?  An angry teacher?  The phrase can make you sound like a bossy adult talking to a child.

Better alternatives:

“I may not have been clear when I spoke earlier, but I had hoped to say that...”

“I did explain that somewhat a bit earlier, but apparently I didn’t  get it across very well.  Let me try again.”

“Maybe you weren't able to hear me but I said earlier...”


4.2  You should have...

These three words cause more unnecessary grief

Better alternatives:

“One option you could have considered....”

“One thing you could have done if you had the chance was to...”

4.3  That’s irrelevant...that doesn’t have anything to do with this...that question doesn’t make any sense...why in the world would you ask that?”

These phrases hit the questioner with similar effects; they are like a slap in the face.  They imply you think the questioner is too stupid to ask a worthwhile inquiry.  Moreover, these comments callously dismiss the feelings and concerns that led the questioner to ask the original question in the first place.  Using these phrases can only make the confrontation worse, probably unsalvagable.  Such insults make emotions skyrocket and nearly guarantee no communication or understanding will take place for a long time.

Better alternatives:

“I am not sure how that is connected but I will try to answer your question.”

“It may just be me but I don’t see how that questions relates to main issue here, but let me explain based on what I think you are asking...”

4.4  You have have no choice...

 Most people, especially Americans, resent being told what to do.  And they burn with red-hot anger when you tell them what to do in a pushy, authoritarian way.  These grating phrases come across like a poke in the chest just before a bar fight breaks out.  They almost beg a person to push back by saying something like “I don’t HAVE TO do anything, and YOU can't make me.”

Don't use these phrases in your responses if you don't want your listeners to shut you out.  If indeed they "have to" do something, you don't have to use command imperatives like these.  Give your listeners credit for enough intelligence to recognize what they have to do and what they don't.  (Refer to item 19.2 for additional comment.)


Better alternatives:

“To comply with the law, you would want to...”

“If you want this service, you need to follow these procedures...

“Yes, you technically have a choice but it's limited to meeting all of the requirements or paying a penalty...”

4.5  That’s not what I said at really have that mixed up...I don’t how you could get that from what I didn’t quote me correctly...”

All of these retorts imply the questioner can’t paraphrase worth a hoot, is an incompetent listener, or is lying about what he heard you say.  These stinging barbs provoke another issue to argue about, thereby blocking any hope for good communication until feelings subside days or months later.  The alternative shown below very cleanly points out that the questioner isn’t quoting you correctly but does it without insult.

Better alternative:

“If that is what you heard me say, well, I didn’t explain myself as well as I would like.  Let me tell you what I had intended to get across...”

This is a very powerful approach.  In a few words, you disarm the hostile question by saying its premise is incorrect, but you take the responsibility for that result.  Then you skillfully take full control of the discussion by re-stating what you want the listener and everyone else to know is your exact view.  It happens so fast that they won't realize what you did.  Try it once, and you'll never forget this method as one of the best of them all.  See item 3.3 for more on this approach to help you avoid the above inflammatory phrases.

4.6  That's not my's not my job...

Although these infuriating phrases are identified most often with government bureaucrats, they apply also to the privacte sector as well  How many times have you asked for an answer but only to hear back, 'That's not not responsibility" or some variation of the phrase, which essentially is heard as "I am not going to help you."

You can let the questioner know that, indeed, it may not be your responsibility while you direct him to the appropriate office or work site where he can get his question answered. 

            Better alternative:

          "Because this isn't my area of expertise, I would like to help you find the right people in another department.  They have the information and responsbility to answer questions like yours.  I could help you locate them if you would like."

- Chapter 5 -

Defending Company Policies Even When You Disagree with Them

          5.1       How can you defend such a terrible policy?

        5.2       Why don't you just admit this is totally wrong?

          5.3       Why didn't you just tell them NO?

           5.4       How can you expect us to go along with this?

          5.5       Are you just going to lie about what you really think?

- Chapter 5 -

Defending Company Policies

Even When You Disagree with Them

If you’re a middle manager (they call it middle management because that’s who always seems to be caught in the middle) you’ve probably been called upon to defend policies with which you don't agree.  That usually means defending them against harsh comments from staff and co-workers who think they know your real feelings.  You may be caught between your integrity and your preference to keep your job (not to mention the ancillary thing called a paycheck).

Upper management sometimes creates policies with which we disagree (and usually don't fully understand).  Nevertheless, we are paid to carry out those policies, even when the policies are unpopular. 

A big part of how employees react has to do with the trustworthiness of the management team.  Management needs to be credible, and speak with one voice.  If you’re part of that team, they expect you to act a certain way, as do those who work for you.  If you deride the policy, you’re not only damaging the management team’s credibility, you’re hurting your own, or at least saying a lot about how loyal you are to the team.

On the other hand, if you blindly enforce a policy with which you are known to disagree, your credibility is weakened.  It might also stain both the management team and their image if your employees feel management stomped you into dust and made you do something you knew to be wrong.  This cuts both ways!  So what do we say when a tough question like the one below comes from a trusted colleagues who knows you well?

5.1  How can you defend such a terrible policy?

The advertising manager who reports to you, and you both work at an financially struggling advertising firm that has loosened it policy on clients it will accept.  The advertising manager is burning angry at the new policy that led to the firm taking on an anti-abortion campaign.  The advertising manger knows your are "pro choice" and she says should have stood up to the vice president and told her you won't do the work because "it's wrong".

  The anti-abortion ads are supposed to portray abortion is both wrong and sinful.  Some of the women working on the campaign support it while others agree with The advertising manager. It might seem that you have only two choices for a response: tell The advertising manager you agree with her and trust she’ll understand your dilemma, or keep your views private while you carry out the task.   However, there's a third choice for your response:

"I'm not defending or criticizing anything.  I am, however, trying to explain what was decided and how it's expected to work.  I've got seven weeks to meet both of those goals.  It's my assignment, so I'm going to get it done the best way I can.  I could use a little leeway here, and some help, too.  This is something that happens to every manager; your turn may be next.”

This response above is intentionally transparent to The advertising manager, who can reasonably re-confirm that you still hold your old views, but it also says that you

are going to do the assigned work.  Giving such transparent responses doesn't reveal anything new to people who already know what you have said in the past -- you aren't going to fool them anyway.

"Don't tell anyone, but..."

Even though the above response is transparent, it nevertheless does not use words that are likely to get you into trouble with upper management.  If you don't want your CEO to know that you think the policy stinks, don't tell your staff or anyone else.  How many times have we all uttered the words:  "Don't tell anyone, but..." or "I'm not supposed to say anything, but...” only to have the boss call us in to explain why we said something we knew we shouldn’t have said?

Juicy gossip travels fast, to all levels.  More than that, your actual resistance becomes ammunition for those who want to scuttle the program.  It can also play into other, existing, but not related, office politics.  In either case, you’re handing people bombs and hoping you don’t get hit with any shrapnel.

If you reinforce the criticism of the unpopular policy, your words are absolutely guaranteed (or your money back on the price of this book) to find their way back to the CEO's ears.  Even better, those words will gain strength and colorful distortion by the time the CEO hears them.  You may never know the CEO heard them, but the big boss isn't likely to forget.  Her doubts over whether or not you are dependable when times are tough will last years.

Tip:  Don’t be a buddy when responding to tough questions

Loyalty will make up for a lot of shortcomings, whereas almost nothing will make up for a lack of loyalty.  So instead of agreeing with the critics so you can be a buddy with the staff, politely tolerate their disdainful looks and comments.    It’s part of your job description.

5.2  Why don't you just admit this is totally wrong?

The advertising manager is sure you really believe the policy is totally wrong in every way.  She and others standing around now demand you confess how "wrong" it is.  With your admission, they can feel very "right" about themselves while reaffirming that the CEO is really a bad guy after all.  All of them know you well enough that their guess is probably right.

What harm would it do to just say so?  Plenty.  In every gossip exchange in the company, your response would be used as justification for recalcitrance.  Your words would undermine the ability of the firm to provide timely and quality service to this client.  And that would harm your career, maybe even end it at the firm.  Consider this response as a better alternative:

"I don't get to decide what is right or wrong in every situation.  And I don't know everything the chairwoman knows.  I'm not saying I'd make the same decision, but I don't know that I wouldn't.  The CEO considered every angle on this problem, and she used her best judgment.  And now it's my job, and yours too, to get this going the way she wants it."

You could give the same response if you wanted to use a de-personalized response to lower the level of emotions.

"No manager gets to decide what is right or wrong in every situation.  A manager doesn't always know everything that the CEO considers when she is reviewing every angle of an issue.  Sometimes it comes down to knowing its a manager's job and the staff's, too, to get something done the way a CEO judges it should be."

'Wrong' by whose standards?

Does the staff really know the policy is "wrong"?  By whose standards?  Not withstanding those people graced with divine guidance, our everyday run-of-the-mill wrong is generally decided by community consensus (or at least acceptance).  We enact laws, establish cultural norms, office policies, and so on.  Rarely are these ever clear, even though everyone talks about "right" and "wrong" as though they are easy to distinguish from each other.

The policy just “is”

Assuming the policy isn't a clear crime like murder, usually the "wrong" in the context of this question means the company's action goes against what your colleagues believe in.  Therein lies the first opportunity to respond.  You can point that what they think is wrong may not be shared by everyone else.  Further, you can choose NOT to debate the issue of what's right or wrong about the policy -- the policy just "is."    You don't have to agree or disagree what is wrong or right -- the firm has a new policy and you are going to follow it.

5.3  Why didn't you just tell them NO?

The advertising manager reminds you this is a STILL a free country.  She says that anyone with character would refuse to implement such a policy.  She wants to know where your backbone is and whether you ever stand up for yourself.  To her it’s just that simple:  all you have to do is open your mouth and say "No.” 

In logic reminiscent of youthful idealism, she concludes that because you are right and they are wrong, they wouldn't dare to say anything back -- i.e., "You’re fired."   By now you can't help but be concerned about losing respect from her and the staff.   You can also respect yourself for taking a reasonable, albeit unpleasant order, and carrying it out.  Someday you'll may be part of upper management and giving such instructions.  Our entire civilization depends on reasonable order, so there's nothing to be ashamed of when you don't just tell upper management "no" as your colleague urges.  Try this response:

"Amy, it might be fun to think we can just say 'no,’ but life doesn't work that way.  I made my alternative proposal, and they turned it down.  I'm not going to defy authority and get fired for nothing.  That would be heroic but nothing would change -- someone else would still have to carry out the policy.   I don't have to like it to do it."

"If everyone here obeyed only the directions they liked, we'd have chaos in an hour.  I gave my opinion, they made a decision, and it's going to be done by me, and done very well.  If you’re as wise as I think you are, you will do the same.”

5.4  How can you expect us to go along with this?

The advertising manager has been joined by a few more rankled colleagues -- the Moral Majority of the office -- who also protest the policy.  They feign mutiny, implying that maybe they simply won't go along with it.  Maybe they’ll all leave en masse.  And because you should also know how wrong it is, how could you expect they would do otherwise? 

As the advertising manager and her buddies stand on their high moral ground, you realize this is one of those days that actually will last longer than 24 hours, maybe a lifetime.

Leave It,  Try To Change It, or Accept It

We have only three reasonable choices when faced with just about any situation.  We can leave the scene and avoid the problem.  We can change the circumstances (or attempt to).  Or we can accept the situation and get used to it.

In the response below the manager uses that logic to lead the group's thinking to its only reasonable choice, unpleasant as it may be.  It’s very similar to Francis of Assisi’s famous prayer that begins “Lord grant me the wisdom to accept those things I cannot change...”

"I understand what you're feeling, but I am not going to join you in those feelings.  I didn't ask for this situation, but I can't just wish it away either.  When we accepted our jobs, we knew there'd be things we might not like.  There are three choices in these situations.  We can quit our jobs, try to change the situation, or we can accept it.  I don't intend to quit, and we know the policy decision is final.  So that leaves accepting it, at least for now."

In the above response manager purposefully ducks the antagonistic question and thereby ducks the verbal punch that might start another round of quarreling.  Instead, he gains attention by showing his awareness of their concerns but then bridges the discussion to the reality of reasonable acceptance.

5.5  Are you just going to lie about what you really think?

As you begin to explain and promote the unpopular policy, you're accused of lying about what you really think   The advertising manager and your colleagues allege that you don't really believe what you are saying.  They know what you have said previously, and it doesn't match up with what's being said now. 

The easy way to resolve the issue of whether you are going to lie about what you really think is not to talk about your views.  Instead, report what the CEO and the vice presidents think, say and do regarding the policy.  And it’s not a bad idea to preface your remarks sometimes with the notion that “wiser heads than mine....”

"There's nothing to lie about.  The truth is very simple -- the CEO set a policy and she gave her reasons for it.  I'm telling the truth that it's my job is to explain the policy and see that it gets implemented on time.   We have all witnessed situations in which an initially unpopular decision actually turned out to make good sense after implementation.  Let’s do what we’re paid to do and carry out the new policy in a positive and capable manner.”

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