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By Dorothy Leeds

In my work as a sales trainer, I am constantly striving to help reps ask more and better questions. In fact, as the author of The 7 Powers of Questions and Smart Questions, I am known as the Questioning Crusader. But you can’t just ask questions in a vacuum. You have to be prepared to answer questions as well – whether you are in a one-on-one conversation or speaking to a group of people.

The manner in which you accept and answer questions is even more important than what you actually say. Sometimes, answering a question involves asking another question. If you’re not quite sure what the other person is asking, get clarification. Ask, “Can you clarify for me in more detail?” or “If I understand you correctly, you’re asking….” Never launch into an explanation without fully clarifying the question or being absolutely certain that you understand the question thoroughly. It's all too easy to think you understand what someone else is thinking. For example, if someone asks, "What about the problems I hear you’re having with the FDA?" a smart communicator would clarify first by asking, "Could you share with me what it is you’ve heard and why you’re asking?" The information you get by probing further should allow you to not only get a better understanding, but to answer more effectively.

We are so used to being asked vague questions, we tend to answer them too quickly. Just as people try to count to ten before losing their temper, the smart speaker will count to three while asking him or herself whether the question needs to be clarified.

Once it’s been clarified, and you’ve answered, confirm that you’ve met the questioner’s needs (especially in a doctor’s office when time is precious) by saying, “Does that answer your question?” If the doctor says no, or hesitates before answering, you might say, “It seems there may be something I left out. Was there something else you wanted to know?”

Coping with commonly asked problem-causing questions

Upon occasion, you may find that you’ve been asked a question that puts you in a sticky situation. Here are some of these types of questions, and ways you can answer them quickly and professionally:

Loaded Question:

  • Don’t accept the premise by trying to ignore it.
  • Instead, challenge the premise politely, but firmly. For instance, say, “With respect, I don’t agree with your premise. In fact ...”
  • Then move to your message.
Personal Opinion
  • Keep your personal opinion out of it.
  • Say, “I don’t believe the issue is my personal opinion. The issue is...”
You Don’t Know the Answer
  • Admit you don’t know/offer to get it. Say, “I wouldn’t want to give you inaccurate information. I will get the right information for you.”
  • Never lie; never guess

You Know the Answer but You Are Not Allowed to Say
  • Give reasons you can’t answer ( e.g., I’m not in a position to say because: that information is confidential; the trials are still being conducted, the issue is before the courts; it would be inappropriate for me to comment; the issue is very sensitive; the issue is currently under discussion/review/negotiation)

Open-Ended/Vague Question
  • Ask for clarification/focus: “What specific aspect are you interested in?”

Multi-part Question
  • Choose the question that is easiest for you and will help make your point: “Let me begin with your first question. The changes will make us more efficient and more responsive to the public. With regard to the question of ...”
  • You don’t have to answer them all at once.

Here are some pointers to keep in mind when answering questions:

  • Acknowledge the question.
  • Never show that you feel that the question is stupid or ill-conceived.
  • Truly listen. Listening well is not a strong suit among many people, but it’s a crucial skill for an effective rep. The quotation from Epictetus says it best: “God has given us two ears and one mouth – so we may hear twice as much as we speak.”
  • Never treat two questions as one. This can be confusing.
  • When you are asked a question, paraphrase it (when appropriate) before answering.
  • Always look the questioner straight in the eye. Then answer the question briefly and accurately.
  • If you don’t know the answer, don’t bluff your way through it.
  • Be ready to offer proof to support your answer.

Answering questions in a group situation (whether you’re in an office with three or four doctors or in front of a large audience) creates different challenges. It’s easier for you to lose control of the situation. In a question-and-answer session, you've got three interdependent objectives to keep in mind at all times. The objectives are hard to separate from each other, and you will stay in control of the question-and-answer session only if you keep all three in mind.

  • Maintain your credibility and control, no matter what happens. If you get angry or defensive, you lose control. Repeat the question - everyone needs to hear it clearly - and hearing it in your own voice will calm you down. Keep your sense of humor, don’t take yourself too seriously, and, if you don’t know an answer, learn to be comfortable saying “I don’t know.”
  • Satisfy the questioner. But remember, you don't have to answer the question fully. Don't spend too much time with one person if there are others who have questions. Answer in a way that makes your best point in relation to your overall objective, break eye contact, and move on. Saying "Jennifer, you've asked an excellent, complex question. Since we have other people with questions, this is the way I can answer it now. I’ll get back to you if we have time." This is a polite, honest response that keeps things moving along.
  • Keep the rest of the group on your side at all costs. You have to let people know you're always considering their time and patience. If you're asked a multiple question such as "How can I cope with all the conflicting information I get, with demanding patients who read all the advertisements they see, and with all my insurance problems?” you might say, "You've asked me three very good questions. Because there are other people in the group with questions, let me answer one and come back to the others if we have time." That way, you partially answer and still keep the rest of the group with you. The others will respect you for not letting the questioner monopolize the little time you have to spend with them.
Analyzing the Question

If at all possible, you want to know why a person is asking the question he or she is asking. Since you can't always decipher the motive underlying a question, you can’t take each question at face value. Not all questions are sincere requests for information. Often people want to express their opinion, to show you up, and to demonstrate their wisdom and great intelligence. Your analysis of a question should focus on three things:

1. The content of the question

2. The intent of the question

3. The person asking the question

When you analyze the intent and the person behind the question, remember that even though this is not the right place for it, argumentative people may use the Q&A as a platform to express their views. They might also be looking for recognition. Give it to them, but don't let them take over. You may lose a few points, but telling them that their question really requires more time and asking, "Can we get together after the meeting?" may be the best way to deal with these people. You can cut off long-winded people, but you have to do it politely and tactfully. And if you get a real troublemaker who causes a disturbance, chances are your audience will express disapproval and ask him or her to sit down.

The fine points of mastering THE Q&A

The fine points for answering questions one-on-one apply to group situations as well. But speakers who handle question-and-answer sessions well have mastered these fine points, too:

  • Give clear directions at the start of the question-and-answer session. Unless you have ground rules already laid, you can't resort to them without sounding like you are dodging questions.
  • Always recognize questions in order. When two or more people hold up their hands at the same time, recognize the first one you see, then mentally note the others and come back to them in order.
  • Hear from everyone who has a question before returning to someone with a second question.
  • Don't develop any blind spots as you look for questions. Let your eyes roam over the entire room, including the head table or rostrum.
  • Answer each question briefly and accurately. Don't wander away from the point. Some questions may tempt you to make a speech in reply. Don't! You have already made your speech.
  • You may be able to score some important points by asking someone else in the audience to answer. For example, if you are asked a technical question and you know that Dr. Jones in the back row is an expert, deflect the question to him: "That's a good question, but it is out of my range. Perhaps Dr. Jones can comment." You satisfy your questioner, and win the support of Dr. Jones at the same time.
  • Keep your sense of humor.
End with conviction

If possible, don’t end on someone else’s question. Have a second, mini-conclusion to your presentation prepared, and present it at the end of the question-and-answer session (this applies to a one-on-one situation as well). Only end with someone else’s question if it allows you to support your position. And even if that's the (rare) case, I still like to end the session myself. After all the time and effort you put into preparing your presentation, why end on someone else's note?

If you do end your talk with the question-and-answer session, do so before all the questions dwindle away. Never keep going until some people are putting on their coats and shuffling up the aisles while one or two last questioners are lingering behind. "Has she finished yet?" one suffering listener asked another as she was departing the auditorium. "Yes," was the answer, "she finished long ago, but she just won't stop." Stay in control. End the session yourself by saying, "That's all we have time for today; I want to thank you all for your contributions." Then deliver your conclusion with warmth and confidence.

If you prepare for questions, take them in stride, treat your audience courteously, and stay in control, the question-and-answer session – whether in a group or one-on-one - changes from a time of dread to an enjoyable opportunity. Make it work for you. Remember, you're not just talking to people, you're engaging them. Enjoy it, and your doctors will remember you for it.

  Dorothy Leeds
  800 West End Ave.
  New York, NY   10025
  212.932.8364 (FAX)

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