On answering tough questions

A complement to the previous post. What do you do if you’re asked a tough question?

The best response to a tough question is to answer it. No dodging, no spin, no bulls**t–just answer the question. There really is no substitute for having thought long and hard about what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, how you’re doing it, what it means, and how it fits in with what others have done and are doing. That means being thoroughly familiar with how others have approached the same problem and related problems, the advantages and drawbacks of alternative approaches, and much else besides. If you really know your stuff, there really aren’t any tough questions, in the sense of important or interesting questions which deserve an answer, but which you cannot answer. If you don’t feel like you’re at that point, and if getting to that point sounds difficult or daunting, well, whoever told you ecology was easy was lying. The truth is that the best people are hardly ever caught out by a question which they haven’t already thought about, or (at a minimum) about which they can’t say something sensible off the top of their heads.

Having said that, if you do get a question you don’t instantly know how to answer, it’s perfectly ok to stall for a bit of time. If you’re not sure you’ve understood the question, you can ask the questioner to rephrase or elaborate. Or rephrase/summarize the question yourself and ask the questioner if you’ve gotten the gist (this is especially useful if the question is a long, involved one). Or answer the question briefly and then ask “Does that answer your question?” Or just say something like “That’s a good question, it deserves a good answer; let me think for a moment” and then think about it.

If a tough question is based on an explicit or implicit assumption that you deny, and which you have a cogent reason for denying, go ahead and deny the assumption (politely).

If the tone of the questioner is very aggressive, it’s usually best to respond calmly and confidently, especially if you’ve got a good answer. You never want to come off as cocky (you’re aiming for calm and confident, not arrogant and dismissive), but replying in a similarly aggressive tone just makes it look like the questioner has touched a nerve and makes you seem defensive.

You should be able to distinguish tough questions from questions that are just “out of leftfield” (i.e. strange questions, which often indicate a questioner from a very different area who has failed to follow your talk, or perhaps a questioner trying to draw an odd analogy between your system and their own). Don’t panic if you get a question from out of leftfield; chances are many audience members find it a strange question too. So any reasonable answer is ok, including an answer that denies the premise of the question (e.g., an answer which denies the analogy the questioner suggested, for some cogent reason). Obviously, you should never actually say that you think a question is strange.

If you’re really caught out, you can say something like “That’s a great question, I’ll need to think more about it and I’d love to talk to you afterwards,” or “That’s a great question–how would you address that?” But again, the best people hardly ever have to resort to such answers (unless the question is out of leftfield). If you have to resort to such answers more than once in a great while, you are (fairly or not) going to get a reputation as someone who doesn’t really know his stuff or can’t think on his feet. Resorting to such answers looks especially bad when the question should not in fact have been a difficult one.

Any tips I missed?

12 thoughts on “On answering tough questions

  1. When asked an unintelligible question by an audience member with a heavy accent or who won’t speak loudly enough to be heard, or if asked a question that seems to make no sense, ask to have it repeated. If you still don’t understand it, ask if anyone in the audience can answer it, or simply repeat it (hopefully more clearly). If all else fails, invite the questioner to discuss it with you in person after the talk is over.

    If asked a question for which one doesn’t know the answer, its OK to make an educated guess, but one must ALWAYS label it as such. Also one should briefly explain the reasoning behind the guess if time permits.

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  5. Once I had a colleague being asked a question (by a famous rocking star in the field) on the previous talk. It all looked like the guy slept over and did not realise everything had moved on (hey, this is the talk next!). How do you answer in this situation? (I wasn’t there but it was strongly unpleasant and my colleague left with feeling ridiculous).

    • LOL!

      Sorry that your colleague was left feeling ridiculous, because of course it’s the questioner who was the ridiculous one. There’s no way to save the questioner embarrassment in that situation, and no magic formula for handling things. I guess I’d try one of two things. Probably the preferred option would be to say something like “I’m not quite sure I understand the question and I’ll need to think more about it, let’s talk afterwards.” (And then if the questioner does approach you afterwards, politely tell them that the question relates to the previous speaker’s talk). That’d be the more generous approach. You’re not actually saving the speaker embarrassment with this dodge, but the gesture of trying to do so show generosity and magnanimity on your part. If nothing else, it’ll hopefully defuse the tension in the room so that the question session can proceed normally. Probably, the rest of the audience will recognize what you’re doing and appreciate you handling it. The other option I might pick would be to say “That’s a good question, but you should direct it to the previous speaker, because I believe it concerns his talk.” Maybe with a smiling, sheepish delivery, because there’s no point in piling on. But I think that option’s less good because it seriously risks increasing the awkwardness of the situation rather than defusing it.

      Of course, easy for me to talk. It’s one think to talk hypothetically about how one might handle such a situation. Another to actually handle it when you’re suddenly faced with it. I don’t envy your colleague at all for having been put in that situation.

      On a lighter note, I’ve heard that John Lawton used to be able to sleep (or appear to sleep) through seminars only to wake up at the end and ask really penetrating questions. I’ve no idea if that’s actually true.

      • That may well be true. My kids sleep when I read them a story, but they wake up and ask me why I did not read exactly this way, when I actually only reversed a proposition in a sentence. From a book they had just read an excerpt a little bit further a few days before (that’s “Bilbo the hobbit”, not the kind of book for which you expect kids to notice a slight reformulation from a ‘random’ page!).

        My colleague managed the situation with answering her best to the question (but that really was a tough question on a subject that was not hers). The audience apparently wasn’t too supportive or my colleague kept taking the guilt on her shoulders…

      • Sorry to hear that your colleague kept feeling guilty about this situation, and that neither the host nor anyone in the audience stepped in to help out.

        Personally, trying to answer the question as best I could is not an option I would’ve considered. That’s bending over too far to be polite as far as I’m concerned.

        I hope your colleague eventually got over it and now uses it as a funny anecdote in conversation. While naming names! 🙂

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