You don’t have to be a politician under fire to face tough questions.
People in business – especially those in leadership positions – get so many tough questions thrown at them these days they can feel as though they’re walking targets.
Alas, whether you’re at the top of a whole organisation or in charge of a department or section within it, being targeted by questioners tends to go with the territory.
Getting tough questions from those who are on your own team, among others, is becoming such a phenomenon that some leadership experts have spotted the prevalence of it.
One such expert, leadership speaker Mark Fritz – who posts daily thoughts to help guide those in the business world – warns emphatically: “Leaders become targets”.
And to underline the message, Mark’s cartoonist has illustrated the point with this graphic picture, which he’s kindly allowed to be reproduced here.
Does the image of darts and arrows – in the form of tough questions flying in the direction of the leader – look or feel familiar?
And at a time when the internet makes it easier for your questioners to come up with material – accurate and otherwise – to fuel their questions, does it seem that being a leader is harder than it might once have been?
The good news is that being able to capitalise on the tough questions thrown at you with great answers is a learnable skill.
LEARN FROM THE MISTAKE OF TARGET BORIS
You can learn how to plan, prepare and practice for tough questions fired at you from around the boardroom, from the shop floor or from the media – or from anywhere else that leaders are targeted.
It also helps if you can keep calm inside while under fire – however volatile, personal or unsettling the questions are.
One tip is to ensure that you don’t take questions too personally.
In this we can all learn from a high profile misstep by a targeted leader called Boris…
The British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has been the target of a highly emotional series of comments and questions from angry opposition Members of Parliament as the politics of Britain’s exit from the European Union become ever-more volatile.
Mr Johnson has been targeted for his provocative use of the word “surrender” to describe what he believes some British MPs are guilty of when considering certain proposals over Brexit advocated by the European Union.
Amidst the tirades directed at him about his alleged use of inflammatory language was one from Labour MP Paula Sherriff which contained a reference to the murdered MP, Jo Cox, though she wasn’t specifically named amidst the onslaught.
Boris Johnson’s initial response to the tirade contained the provocative word “humbug” – defined by the Cambridge English Dictionary as “dishonest talk, writing, or behaviour that is intended to deceive”.
This led to claims that the Prime Minister was dismissing abuse and death threat fears experienced by female MPs in particular.
You can re-live the exchange – including a long intervention by the Speaker of the House of Commons as he attempted to calm MPs – in this video.
The mistake Boris Johnson made was at the very start of his answer where he used the pejorative term “humbug” to dismiss everything that had been thrown at him.
Often when a string of emotive questions and comments are flying towards you, it will contain a mixture of points – some of which might be considered more reasonable than others and some which are often more emotionally-charged than others.
So to deal effectively with a multi-pronged tirade of this nature requires a more careful response than a blanket rejection of everything.
In this case, the immediate response really needed to allow for the fact that the tirade had made a veiled reference to concerns about security for female MPs following the murder of the MP Jo Cox.
A leader can’t really afford to be dismissive of such serious fears and it was dangerous to lump such concerns in with the other aspects of the multi-faceted tirade.
A safer headline opener for a leader in such circumstances would have been along the lines: “I appreciate the questioner’s concern about the safety of MPs going about their business as Jo Cox was when she was tragically murdered, but I can’t agree with everything that’s just been said.”
The art is to deal with the emotion that is being hurled towards you, by talking initially to the human heart not the head – and only then to move on to convey messages that appeal more directly to the logical side of the brain.
And a bit of good humour, which Boris Johnson is a master at on a good day, can help keep things under control at the start if it’s deployed appropriately.
Boris Johnson did later explain that his response was part of a misunderstanding about some details of what the questioner had said – and he even came close to apologising by his standards.
“I can certainly say sorry for the misunderstanding,” he said afterwards, “but my intention was to refuse to be crowded out from using the word ‘surrender’ to describe the Surrender Act.”
(“Surrender Act” is Boris Johnson’s code for proposals which he maintains rob Britain of some of its sovereignty.)
GUIDANCE FOR BORIS – AND FOR YOU
So the challenge for you when targeted by a barrage of questions is to make sure your instant overall response doesn’t effectively invite more darts of outrage to fly in your direction.
There’s further guidance for Boris Johnson – and anyone else who needs to give great answers while being targeted – in a book called “Great Answers To Tough Questions At Work” published by Wiley.
The paperback version and the talking book option – read to you in an enlighteningly soothing Australian accent – are here:
You can read the first chapter free online at:
Key parts of the content of the book can also be conveyed at conferences – such as this fantastically positive event on raising visibility, convened by the Women Leaders Association at the sumptuous London Art House.
You can have your answers critiqued in front of colleagues as we work on improving them if you’re super-courageous – as was this heroic chief executive pictured below.
If you look closely at this picture near the top you may perceive that the volunteer has actually shattered the glass ceiling with her enhanced great answer!
Alternatively you can learn to give great answers in one-to-one sessions – face-to-face or on the phone.
And for those who want to put the golden formulae for answering tough questions into practice at conferences, in masterclasses or in cosy one-to-one sessions, there’s more information at:
Remember the start of your great answer is often crucial.
The better your initial response to a tough question, the less you’ll be making yourself available for constant target practice after the first missile is fired at you.
And the good news is that you can book “Great Answers To Tough Questions” sessions on either side of the English Channel and beyond.
GIVE GREAT ANSWERS IN PARIS – AND BEYOND
In the past few weeks, Paris has been a favoured destination for great answers sessions.
And it’s been splendid to glide over to Paris from London on the smooth, rapid and (relative to the jet and car-plus-boat options) environmentally-friendly Eurostar.
When you know the golden formulae for giving great answers – and you plan, prepare and practice for using them in communications-boosting sessions – your answers can become as smooth and easy as the Eurostar gliding through the Channel Tunnel.
Nevertheless, as Mark Fritz warns, leaders will still become targets.
But it’s better to give great answers to help ensure you’re a smaller target than give atrocious answers and turn yourself into a bigger one!
P.S. You can sign up for the free weekly emailed thoughts from leadership guru, Mark Fritz, at: