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How Well Does Your Team Handle Tough Questions?

Originally published in 2019 on Mandel Communications' blog.

Imagine a talented, senior member of your IT team is presenting the latest product roadmap in a meeting with a customer. That same customer has been expressing doubts about whether they’ll renew with your company.

It’s a make or break moment in the relationship.

Suddenly, the customer asks an incredibly tough question — one that casts doubt on your team’s credibility. This could crush your chances of keeping the client onboard.

How does your team member respond?

Uh-oh. Their face starts to flush. They avert their eyes away from the customer. Now, you’re worried. Caught off-guard, how they respond could make all the difference. Do they stridently defend their position? Offer a trite response? Ignore the question? Or maybe just steamroll right over it and move on?

It can be all too easy, instinctive almost, to react defensively.

The truth is, it’s never a good idea to ignore tough questions or get defensive and talk over a listener’s concerns. Their concerns won’t go away and, in the end, you risk irritating or even alienating your audience.

Opportunity in Tough Questions

Challenging questions, even confrontational ones, present an opportunity.

Your listener is giving you a gift — a chance to address out in the open concerns that other audience members may also have but not feel comfortable expressing.

When handled well, by listening and responding in a non-defensive way, tough questions can help you build a stronger bridge between you and your listeners. They can help you strengthen your credibility and rally greater support for your idea or recommendation.

The only question is, how do you do it?

Mandel has created a 3-step model for handling tough questions with confidence and ease. It’s called Align Respond Maintain™ or ARM™ for short. Clients trained in the ARM model tell us that it works extremely well, especially with a bit of in-the-moment preparation.

Preparing to Respond

When asked a tough question, be sure to take a breath and do the following things before you respond:

  • Check your posture: Make sure your posture is confident and relaxed. Don’t slump back in your chair embarrassed or cross your arms defensively.
  • Maintain eye contact: Make eye contact with your listener and with others in your audience.
  • Pause: Take a moment to gather your thoughts before answering the question. What may feel like an eternity to you will not feel long at all to your audience.
  • Clarify: If necessary, repeat back or clarify what you heard to make sure you understand their question or objection.

Taking a breath to check in with yourself – with your posture and your thoughts – will help you better respond to your listener’s concern.

3-Step Model for Handling Tough Questions

ARM™ is a non-defensive and collaborative method for answering tough questions that anyone can learn.

Step One: Align

Directly acknowledge the fact and/or the emotion being expressed, using the listener’s name if appropriate.

Avoid superficial, rapport-breaking responses like, “I know how you feel.” Show that you care about your listener’s concerns and understand why they’re important.

Below are examples of statements you can use to align with your listener.

Ask questions to make sure you understand.

  • “Is your concern about cost, then?”
  • “What about our schedule has you worried?”

Confirm your understanding.

  • “John, what’s on top of your list then is…”
  • “It sounds, Judy, as if you feel the best way is to…”

Validate your listener’s perspective.

  • “Under-staffing does create extraordinary challenges for an IT team.”
  • “I know your concern is that this program could take you over your budget.”

Step Two: Respond

Deliver the necessary information objectively and non-defensively. Then, describe what you can do to help.

Indicate how you can address the concern:

  • “We have a way to help with this situation.”
  • “Here is what I will do.”
  • “I have an example of how someone else tackled that problem.”

Avoid using “but” or similar words and phrases.

  • Using words or phrases like “but,” “however,” “although,” or “nevertheless” at the beginning of your response can sound defensive.
  • These words negate the work you’ve done to align with the listener.

Step Three: Maintain

Describe what you’ll do to maintain the trusted advisor relationship.

  • Indicate how you’ll bring value to the relationship.
  • Restate what you believe the listener should do.
  • Let the listener know that you’re committed to their success.
  • Finish on a strong, positive note.

Sample phrases you can use to describe how you’ll maintain the relationship:

  • “I’m committed to finding the best solution.”
  • “I want you to be successful.”
  • “I want you to have the solution with the biggest impact.”
  • “I want you to help meet your goals.”
  • “I believe this solution will give you the best return on your effort.”

If a listener seems unwilling to move on, ask a question to learn more.

  • “What is your reaction to this suggestion?”
  • “How do you think this will work for you?”
  • “Could we dig a little deeper into some of your concerns? I’d really like to have a better understanding of what they are.”

The Struggle to Align

Challenges can catch people off guard. Our lizard brains are wired to react defensively. In our experience, most people are intuitively good at the Respond and Maintain steps of the ARM Model, but find it hard to remember to Align.

Keep in mind that alignment is not agreement. It’s not retreat or surrender to your listener’s objection. Instead, it’s a critical opportunity to validate your listener’s concerns or feelings and make them feel heard.

Listeners who feel heard will, in return, be more open to hearing your response.

Mindset Shift Takes Preparation

Learning to love tough questions means shifting your mindset. It means learning to see tough questions as opportunities rather than obstacles.

The best way to shift your perspective is to gain the needed confidence and skills to respond in a non-defensive way to even the most challenging questions or objections.

You need to be ready. That’s where Mandel’s ARM model can help. Try it out. Practice it. Because when you can respond instead of react, you’ll gain your listener’s trust and improve your chances of getting your ideas and solutions accepted or funded.

Go Deeper

What mistakes have you seen your team make when confronted with tough questions?

Brainstorm with your team all of the ways you’ve seen people react to objections or challenging questions in defensive or unproductive ways. Talk about how those situations could have been handled differently. Try role-playing with your team and putting Mandel’s ARM Model into practice.

Want to transform your team into influential presenters who seize the opportunity in tough questions and win the hearts and minds of listeners? Check out the Mandel Training Workshop: Conversation Skills.