How To Respond To Hostile Questions At Work

Whether from your boss or a client, it’s hard to keep your cool when you feel attacked. Here are the best responses to verbal attacks.

How To Respond To Hostile Questions At Work
[Photo: Flickr user Jérémy Lelièvre]

There you are, in a Monday morning meeting. You’re updating your boss on the status of your critical project. You have been laser focused on your timeline, and you feel confident you will meet your deadline.


And then, out of nowhere, your boss jabs:

“That’s it? I was expecting you to be further along. Don’t you think you could’ve done more if you put some actual effort into your work?”


How do you react? What do you say? How do you get beyond that dizzy, heart-pounding shock of the attack? It’s not easy–but the key is to get yourself out of feeling mode and into thinking mode. By understanding the four types of hostile questions, you will be able to think analytically and handle these situations with grace and impact.

Here are four types of hostile questions and how to respond.

1. Questions That Ask You To Agree With Something Negative About Yourself.

Example: Your timeline is grossly unrealistic, don’t you think so?


With these types of questions, you can respond with a simple “No,” immediately followed by a recap of the issue under consideration. For example, you could respond by saying, “No, in terms of how I plan to meet my deadline, one of the actions I will take is . . . Another one of the actions I will take is . . . ” And so on. In this case, long answers can be effective for diffusing the hostility. Maintain a neutral expression, and maintain eye contact with the questioner. Most importantly, distill the issue at hand and respond to that issue. Don’t let your emotions dictate your response.

2. Questions That Contain Inflammatory Trigger Words.

Example: “How can you suggest a strategy that is going to sabotage our business?”

What is essential about your response here is that you do not repeat the inflammatory word in question. Keep a cool head, and distill the issue without repeating the word that they used. For example, you could start by saying, “The issue at hand is what impact this strategy will have on our business going forward . . . ” Respond on your terms, not the terms of the questioner.

3. Questions That Seek Straightforward Information, But In A Hostile Tone.

Example: “How much more money do we need to put in the budget for this additional charge?”

This is difficult to convey in written form, but you can imagine how that question could be phrased in a hostile way. The question is not using any inflammatory words or asking you to agree with a negative, but the question may still be hostile depending on the tone. In these situations, just disregard the tone and respond as if the question was asked in a completely straightforward way–as difficult as that may be. Counterpunch by being calm.

4. Questions That Include Negative Preconditions.

Example: “Every time I go to these meetings, all I see is texting, texting, texting. What’s wrong with our team? Isn’t anybody paying attention? What’s the agenda for today?


Questions with negative preconditions can trigger big emotional reactions. Not only do they contain hostility about the issue at hand, but they also bring up information that is often from the past and only tangentially related. While this is a more complex type of hostile question, the solution is very simple: Just ignore the precondition altogether. Don’t revive old fights or get distracted by irrelevancies. Similar to inflammatory trigger words, just let negative preconditions go in one ear and out the other; focus exclusively on the issue at hand. For example: “As for today’s agenda, one of the priorities today is . . . ” Don’t try to justify the texting; focus on the issue at hand.

You could be asked a hostile question for any number of reasons. Maybe the questioner has a hidden agenda. Maybe he or she is just having a bad day. But in terms of your response, it doesn’t really matter why. All that matters in the moment is your reaction. So, distill the question into a cogent issue, focus on that issue, and respond to that issue.

Remember: The next time you get blindsided by a verbal jab, don’t get defensive. Don’t get angry, get analytical. By understanding the four types of hostile questions, you can handle the attack with grace and impact.

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.