How to answer difficult questions

by Katharine Peace

The data school aims to teach you how to become a great consultant data analyst. This means that focus is put not only on the analytical and creative skills needed to produce a good viz but the soft skills required to interact with clients and present your ideas effectively. In addition to the rich curriculum provided internally by the information lab we have been fortunate to receive talks from a selection of external speakers on a variety of topics. During a Friday lunch time, Fi Gordon dropped in to give us a quick masterclass on answering difficult questions.

What can make a question difficult?

Difficult circumstances: Public speaking can be tough. Especially so when you are asked a question and you feel yourself freezing. Much of what makes questions hard to answer due to circumstantial reasons is the feeling that you have been put on the spot and you haven’t any time to think.

Difficult topics: Number one priority as a consultant is to keep the client happy but sometimes you may be asked to do something by the client that you don’t feel would be in the client’s best interest. You may feel that that there is a better way to approach what you have been asked to do.

To help us with difficult questions, Fi Gordon ran through an exercise with us in which we answered difficult questions using a multistep script she had devised. The idea is to have a learnt routine that you can run through in times of stress that eases the process of thinking through an answer.

We practised our responses in pairs. One person had a sheet of difficult questions and was stood in front of a wall that had a printed sheet, with steps for answering difficult questions, tacked to it. The other was facing their partner and able to see the printed sheet to facilitate learning the script. This was a really useful way to learn the routine and I would encourage you to have a go yourself!

Here are her steps:

  1. Maintain eye-contact and nod to show you are actively listening. If eye contact makes you uncomfortable you can look just above their eyes (about eyebrow level) to give the illusion of eye-contact.
  2. Acknowledge that you find the question difficult and indicate you will need time to think about your answer. Fi suggested saying something like “That’s a challenging question, give me a moment to think about that”. If this phrasing doesn’t sound natural to you then feel free to devise your own response so long as you remember to acknowledge and indicate.
  3. It can help to use your body-language to show that you are thinking about the question. This can be done by breaking eye contact. Fi suggested looking up as people associate this body-language with someone deep in thought.
  4. After you have thought about the question, and have an answer ready, it can be useful to preface your response with a phrase such as “Off the top of my head…”, or something similar, that reminds the questioner that you’re thinking on the fly and are answering to the best of your knowledge.
  5. For the roll play that we did with Fi our hypothetical situations involved questions that were difficult as they went against what we have been trained to think of as best practice so our answers here involved explaining why we wouldn’t recommend the request followed by how the process could be done if the client still wished it to be.
  6. To close your answer you can say something like “That’s what I think about [Insert their question here]”. If your answer in part 5 was quite lengthy then you slip a summary in here too.

Further tips:

  • If you really don’t know the answer to the question but someone in the room does then don’t be afraid to ask for input from them.
  • The script can make it feel like you have a set number of pauses. Don’t be afraid of pausing during your long answer in question 5. If you losing your train of thought you can always take a moment to gather yourself. Pauses are never as long as you think they are!

Photo by Evan Dennis on Unsplash


Katharine Peace

Thu 28 Feb 2019

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