Can I be honest?
I find few things more frustrating than a business owner or leader who is afraid of answering negative questions about their organization.
As a communicator, I have to fight to get messages heard. So I’m baffled when business owners and organizational leaders cringe at the prospect of apparent interest, especially when it’s couched as a criticism.
I think it has a lot to do with control — they’re perfectly comfortable talking about a campaign they’ve planned for months, but they don’t want to touch that question about last quarter’s spending that came out of left field.
They weren’t ready for it. They didn’t do any research, and there is no prepared statement. Best to just ignore it, right? WRONG. And here’s why.
Negative Questions Are a Chance to Start a Conversation
No one ever said you have to respond to a question with an answer. And thank goodness, because business matters are very rarely black and white. It is quite possible — in some cases, even preferable — to respond to a question by starting a conversation.
Conversations are great because their very nature allows for two important things: context and understanding. Often, when someone asks a negative question about your organization’s decisions or actions, it’s because they lack context. By providing them with context, you give them a better framework for understanding your motives.
So don’t get defensive and nervous. Get curious and conversational. Odds are, this will satisfy an audience far more than a blunt answer.
Negative Questions Are a Chance to Steer Public Perception
This is very closely related to the point above. When someone asks a negative question about your organization, chances are there are several others with the exact same query. If you do a little digging, you can start to understand why they think the way they do.
Ask them a few things in return. What made them ask that question? Does it stem from lack of context? If you provided that context, would it change their view? What could you do differently next time to avoid this sort of negative opinion in the future?
For the record, asking questions in return is not about creating misdirection. It’s getting to the root of public perception and finding ways to fix it.
Negative Questions Are a Chance to Manage Expectations
Say you’re asked a very complicated question in a very public way. It’s a question that you know (and trust me, you’ll know) requires a straight answer. But you don’t know it just then.
DON’T PANIC. Contrary to popular belief, it’s okay not to know everything. Here’s what you do:
- Promise to find the answer
- Give a deadline by which you will deliver the answer
- Deliver the answer by the quoted deadline (if you can’t manage this, explain why, and give them a new deadline)
You’ll likely gain some respect for your ability to follow through.
Finally, while it’s easy to think of the person asking the question as the one who’s in control (especially when said question sets you on edge), the reality is that you’re the one with the answers.
Check out my Field Guide to Reactive Communications.