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Handling Tough Questions: The Critical Dynamics of Q&A

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  1. Defensive, Evasive, or Contentious
  2. Presenter Behavior/Audience Perception
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This chapter demonstrates exactly how not to respond when faced with difficult questions. A Defensive, evasive, or contentious response can actually damage your cause even more than an upopular but honest one. This chapter outlines each of these improper responses, and provides an illustration of each which demonstrates how they can be harmful.

To fully appreciate the importance of control in handling tough questions, we should first look at the consequences of loss of control. A vivid example of such a disastrous unraveling comes from an episode of the 1970s comedy television series, The Bob Newhart Show. The widely known series is still running in syndication. One particular episode has become a classic. In it, Newhart plays a psychologist named Robert Hartley, who amiably agrees to appear on a Chicago television program to be interviewed by Ruth Corley, the program's hostess. This is the interview:

  • Ruth Corley: Good morning, Dr. Hartley. Thank you for coming. I hope it's not too early for you.
  • Dr. Hartley: No, I had to get up to be on television.
  • Ruth Corley: Well, I'm glad you're relaxed. I'm a little nervous myself, I mean, I've never interviewed a psychologist.
  • Dr. Hartley: Don't worry about it; we're ordinary men you know, one leg at a time.
  • Ruth Corley: Well, if I start to ramble a little or if I get into an area I'm not too conversant with, you'll help me out, won't you?
  • Dr. Hartley: Don't worry about it. If you get into trouble, just turn it over to me and I'll wing it.
  • Augie (Voice Over): 10 seconds, Ruth!
  • Ruth Corley: Thanks, Augie.
  • Dr. Hartley: You'll be fine.
  • Ruth Corley: Here goes.
  • Augie (VO): 3, 2, you're on.
  • Ruth Corley: Good morning. It's 7 o'clock, and I am Ruth Corley. My first guest is psychologist, Dr. Robert Hartley. It's been said that today's psychologist is nothing more than a con man; a snake oil salesman, flim-flamming innocent people, peddling cures for everything from nail bites to a lousy love life, and I agree. We will ask Dr. Hartley to defend himself after this message.
  • Dr. Hartley: Was that on the air?
  • Ruth Corley: Oh, that's just what we call a grabber. You know, it keeps the audience from tuning out.
  • Augie (VO): Ten seconds, Ruth.
  • Ruth Corley: Thanks, Augie.
  • Dr. Hartley: We won't be doing anymore grabbing will we?
  • Ruth Corley: No, no. From now on we'll just talk.
  • Augie (VO): 3, 2, you're on.
  • Ruth Corley: Dr. Hartley, according to a recently published survey, the average fee for a private session with a psychologist is 40 dollars.
  • Dr. Hartley: That's about right.
  • Ruth Corley: Right? I don't think it's right! What other practitioner gets 40 dollars an hour?
  • Dr. Hartley: My plumber.
  • Ruth Corley: Plumbers guarantee their work, do you?
  • Dr. Hartley: See, I don't understand why all of the sudden…
  • Ruth Corley: I asked you if you guaranteed your work!
  • Dr. Hartley: Well, I can't guarantee each and every person that walks through the door is going to be cured.
  • Ruth Corley: You mean you ask 40 dollars an hour and you guarantee nothing?
  • Dr. Hartley: I validate.
  • Ruth Corley: Is that your answer?
  • Dr Hartley: Could…can I have a word with you?
  • Ruth Corley: Chicago is waiting for your answer!
  • Dr. Hartley: Well, Chicago…everyone that comes in doesn't pay 40 dollars an hour.
  • Ruth Corley: Do you ever cure anybody?
  • Dr. Hartley: Well, I wouldn't say cure.
  • Ruth Corley: So your answer is "No."
  • Dr. Hartley: No, no my answer is not "No." I get results. Many of my patients solve their problems and go on to become successful.
  • Ruth Corley: Successful at what?
  • Dr. Hartley: Professional athletes, clergyman, some go on to head large corporations. One of my patients is an elected official.
  • Ruth Corley: A WHAT?
  • Dr. Hartley: Nothing, nothing.
  • Ruth Corley: Did you say an elected official?
  • Dr Hartley: I might have, I forget.
  • Ruth Corley: Who is it?
  • Dr. Hartley: Well, I can't divulge his identity.
  • Ruth Corley: Why? There is a deranged man out there in a position of power!
  • Dr. Hartley: He isn't deranged… Anymore.
  • Ruth Corley: But he was when he came to see you, and you said yourself that you do not give guarantees.
  • Dr. Hartley: Uh…
  • Ruth Corley: After this message we will meet our choice for woman of the year, Sister Mary Catherine.
  • Augie (VO): Okay, we're into commercial.
  • Dr. Hartley: Thanks, Augie.
  • Ruth Corley: Thank you, Dr Hartley. You were terrific. I mean, I wish we had more time.
  • Dr. Hartley: We had plenty.
  • Ruth Corley: Well, I really enjoyed it.
  • Dr. Hartley: You would have enjoyed Pearl Harbor.
  • Ruth Corley: Good morning, Sister. It's wonderful of you to come at this hour.
  • Dr. Hartley: If I were you I wouldn't get into religion, she will chew your legs off. [1.1]

Newhart accompanied his uncertain verbal responses to the interviewer's attacks with an array of equally edgy physical behavior: He squirmed in his seat, he stammered, he twitched, his eyes darted up and down and around and around frantically, and he crossed his arms and legs protectively. But even without these visual images, his words alone depict a man desperately trying to cover his tracks. Despite all the humor, Bob Newhart came across as defensive.

Defensive, Evasive, or Contentious

Different people react differently to challenging questions. While some become defensive, others become evasive. A vivid example of the latter came at the end of a string of events that were set into motion on the evening of December 5, 2002.

Strom Thurmond, the Republican senator from South Carolina, with a long history of segregationist votes and opinions, reached his one-hundredth birthday. At a celebratory banquet on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. on that fateful Thursday, Trent Lott, the Republican senator from Mississippi and then Senate Majority Leader, stood to honor his colleague. During his remarks, Senator Lott said:

When Strom Thurmond ran for President, we voted for him. We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either.

The statement created an uproar that raged like wildfire across the country. Five days later, even the pro-Republican The Wall Street Journal ran an editorial condemning the statement. In an attempt to quell the furor, Lott issued a two-sentence written apology on December 10.

A poor choice of words conveyed to some the impression that I embraced the discarded policies of the past. Nothing could be further from the truth, and I apologize to anyone who was offended by my statement.

The statement failed to stem the continuing public outcry. A week later, in what he thought would be a bold step to make amends, Lott agreed to appear on Black Entertainment Television. He was interviewed by anchor Ed Gordon, who went right to the heart of the matter. At the very start of the program, Gordon pushed the hot button by asking the senator to explain what he meant by "all of those problems" in his original statement.

Lott responded with a wide array of problems, none of which addressed Gordon's question.

Gordon interrupted Lott's rambling, evasive answer to remind him that Thurmond was also a strong proponent of segregation.

Lott tried to change the subject but Gordon pressed him as to whether he knew that Thurmond was a segregationist. Lott finally capitulated. True to his journalistic profession, Gordon immediately followed with another question seeking confirmation that Lott understood.

Unable to evade any longer, Lott capitulated again.

Politicians are not the only people who become evasive under fire; such behavior extends even to sports. Pedro Martinez, one of the most dominant pitchers in Major League Baseball, provides a case in point. After seven successful years with the Boston Red Sox, culminating in a dramatic World Series victory in 2004, Martinez decided to leave his team to join the New York Mets, a dismal team with a losing record. In an effort to reverse their fortunes, the Mets outbid the Red Sox with a four-year contract for the pitcher worth $54 million.

When he arrived in New York, Martinez held a press conference filled with cynical sports reporters who bombarded him with tough questions about his decision, one of which was

What about people who think this is all about you taking the money? That is the general perception in Boston now.

Martinez answered,

They are totally wrong, because I was a millionaire, I had already achieved a lot of money. I'm a wealthy man since I got to Boston. Like I said before, in the press conference today, when I got to Boston, I was making millions. Every million, every minute in the big leagues, is more than I had ever in my life. I'm a millionaire once I got to the big leagues. Money's not my issue, but respect is, and that's what Boston lacked to show by not showing interest. They're going to make it look like it was the money. Now my question would be, "Why did they have to wait until the last moment to make a move, until I had committed to another place?'' [1.2]

To answer a question about money with an answer about timing and respect is not much better than answering a question about segregation with an answer about fighting Nazism and Communism. It is equally evasive.

After evasiveness and defensiveness, the third variation on the theme of negative responses to challenging questions is contentiousness. One of the most combative men ever to enter the political arena is H. Ross Perot, the billionaire businessman, who has a reputation for cantankerousness. In 1992, Perot ran for president as an independent candidate and, although he conducted an aggressive campaign, lost to Bill Clinton. The following year, Perot continued to act the gadfly by leading the opposition to the Clinton-backed North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Matters came to a head on the night of November 9, 1993, when Perot engaged then Vice President Al Gore in a rancorous debate on Larry King's television program.

In the heat of battle, Perot launched into the subject of lobbying.

You know what the problem is, folks? It's foreign lobbyists… are wreckin' this whole thing. Right here, Time Magazine just says it all, it says "In spite of Clinton's protests, the influence-peddling machine in Washington is back in high gear." The headline, Time Magazine: "A Lobbyist's Paradise."

Gore tried to interject.

I'd like to respond to that.

Larry King tried to allow Gore to speak.

All right, let him respond.

Perot barreled ahead, his forefinger wagging at the camera…and the audience.

We are being sold out by foreign lobbyists. We've got 33 of them working on this in the biggest lobbying effort in the history of our country to ram NAFTA down your throat.

Gore tried to interject again.

I'd like to respond…

But Perot had one more salvo.

That's the bad news. The good news is it ain't working.

Having made his point, Perot leaned forward to the camera, smiled smugly, and turned the floor back to Gore.

I'll turn it over to the others.

Larry King made the hand-off.

OK, Ross.

Gore took his turn.

OK, thank you. One of President Clinton's first acts in office was to put limits on the lobbyists and new ethics laws, and we're working for lobby law reform right now. But, you know, we had a little conversation about this earlier, but every dollar that's been spent for NAFTA has been publicly disclosed. We don't know yet… tomorrow…perhaps tomorrow we'll see, but the reason why…and I say this respectfully because I served in the Congress and I don't know of any single individual who lobbied the Congress more than you did, or people in your behalf did, to get tax breaks for your companies. And it's legal.

Perot bristled and shot back.

You're lying! You're lying now!

"You're lying!" is as contentious as a statement can be. True to form, Perot showed his belligerence. Gore looked incredulously at Perot.

You didn't lobby the Ways and Means Committee for tax breaks for yourself and your companies?

Perot stiffened.

What do you have in mind? What are you talking about?

Gore said matter-of-factly,

Well, it's been written about extensively and again, there's nothing illegal about it.

Perot sputtered, disdainfully.

Well that's not the point! I mean, what are you talking about?

With utter calm, Gore replied,

Lobbying the Congress. You know a lot about it.

Now Perot was livid. He glowered at Gore and insisted,

I mean, spell it out, spell it out!

Gore pressed his case.

You didn't lobby the Ways and Means Committee? You didn't have people lobbying the Ways and Means Committee for tax breaks?

Contemptuous, Perot stood his ground.

What are you talking about?

Gore tried to clarify.

In the 1970s…

Perot pressed back.

Well, keep going.

Now Gore sat up, looked Perot straight in the eye, and asked his most direct challenging question.

Well, did you or did you did you not? I mean, it's not…

His back against the wall, Perot fought back.

Well, you're so general I can't pin it down! [1.3]

The adjectives defensive, evasive, and contentious are synonymous with "Fight or Flight," the human body's instinctive reaction to stress. In each of the cases above, Fight or Flight was the response to tough questions: Ross Perot became as pugnacious as a bare-knuckled street fighter; Trent Lott danced around as if he were standing on a bed of burning coals; and Bob Newhart's jumping jack antics looked like a man desperately trying to eject from his hot seat.

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