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The 3-Step Process To Answering Even The Toughest Questions

An executive speaking coach explains her approach to staying strong when the heat is on.

The 3-Step Process To Answering Even The Toughest Questions
[Work interview: indukas via Shutterstock]

On the reality show Shark Tank, there’s a four-word red flag that warns a contestant the Sharks have begun to circle and the success of the pitch is in serious danger:

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“Just answer the question.”

On the show, being able to handle tough questions from the investors can make or break the pitch. Likewise, in your work, your ability to handle tough questions–whether they are from your boss, board, peers, or customers–can advance your agendas and accelerate your promotions, or it can derail your proposals and damage your career’s trajectory.

Over my 35 years of providing speaking coaching to business executives, I’ve taught an extremely simple process for dealing with challenging questions that I call the ABC approach. What’s great about my approach is that it helps you manage the pausing, panicking, and jumbled thoughts you experience in the face of a tough question. By implementing ABC, you will be able to deliver a strong, coherent answer with ease and impact.

So, how exactly does it work?

1. Align

Alignment has two parts: First, you have to recognize what the questioner has said, and then you have to explain why you feel her perspective has merit. Begin with “I understand…” and briefly repeat her concern, letting her know you are hearing her. This shows that you are focused on what she is saying and are respectful of her viewpoint. Then, after saying “because,” show that you more fully understand where she’s coming from. Here is an example of alignment in action:

Question: “Do you really think we should be pursuing this when we are stretched so thin already?”

Alignment Recognition: “I understand that the organization is handling more projects than ever before . . .”
Alignment Explanation: “. . . because we’ve restructured the organization, added new products, and introduced new tracking systems.”

Alignment is beneficial because you are immediately laying the framework to find some kind of middle ground in the anticipation of any potential conflict. But more importantly, alignment buys you time to think about your response. We think more than three times faster than we speak. Because of this, we can begin to formulate a coherent response in our heads during this alignment time. In these situations, you’re expected to answer quickly and smoothly, so the ability to buy some time is absolutely essential.

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Once you’ve aligned with your questioner, it’s time to move on to the bridging phase.

2. Bridge

Bridging is the transition from the middle ground between you and the questioner and the points you want to make. As soon as you establish that you understand her concern, move into something like “However . . .” or “But here’s another way to look at it”–anything that clearly signals you are about to present an alternative perspective.

To go back to the previous example, right after you align, move into:

Bridge: “However, I believe this project will create many new opportunities for us.”

What’s important to keep in mind here is that your bridge is not adversarial; rather, you are transitioning to an alternative perspective for your questioner to consider. Don’t think of your response as a rebuttal; instead, you’re keeping the discussion positive and providing new avenues of thought. The points that make up these avenues are structured using the final step, categorization.

3. Categorize

To categorize, you establish a bullet point structure in your mind before giving the answer. In writing, you use bullets to indicate new points; in speaking, you use oral linkages. Your linkages should correspond to the particular concept of the question (if applicable). If the question asks about goals, for instance, each linkage should begin with “One of the goals…” Give your first piece of evidence for your position, then continue with “Another one of the goals … ” and so on. Each “goal” represents one of your mental bullet points.

Let’s apply this strategy to our example from earlier. After you bridge:

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Categorize: “One of the opportunities this project will create is….” Explain your point, and then follow it up with, “Another one of the opportunities this project will create is…” And so on.

What makes this strategy so effective is that you clearly segment your ideas with precision, rather than clumping your thoughts together in a stream of consciousness (you’re not James Joyce). When you clump your ideas together, as a whole they may take on a meaning you don’t intend. The benefit of categorization is that you articulate each idea by itself, giving your ideas more power than if they blended into each other. To win at tough questions, you need to make powerful points clearly and distinctly–demonstrating breadth of thinking and comprehensive understanding.

The bottom line? This strategy works. My clients not only hold their ground but score big under pressure. So, it’s elementary–the ABC approach can give you the edge you need to respond to tough questions with ease, clarity, and confidence.

Anett Grant is the president and founder of Executive Speaking, Inc., a global speaking coaching company for senior executives. Reach Anett at anett@execspeak.com

About the author

Anett Grant is the CEO of Executive Speaking, Inc. and the author of the new e-book, CEO Speaking: The 6-Minute Guide. Since 1979, Executive Speaking has pioneered breakthrough approaches to helping leaders from all over the world--including leaders from 61 of the Fortune 100 companies--develop leadership presence, communicate complexity, and speak with precision and power.

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