Whether you're a startup, a new leader, or a seasoned professional taking on new responsibilities, you're trying to master every aspect of your business. But you can't have all the answers. No one does. Even so, the thought of getting bombarded with questions from clients or prospects that you can't answer quickly and intelligently probably keeps you up at night, and it doesn't get better the next morning.

Theoretical physicist Richard Feynman once remarked, "I would rather have questions that can't be answered than answers that can't be questioned." (That certainly sounds like something a theoretical physicist might say, doesn't it?) And while the sentiment is sound--that we should strive to be both curious and challenging about our questions and answers--if you're facing questions in a meeting or a presentation, you may need a more practical approach.

While you may have already prepared thoughtful responses to the most common questions, there's the chance a client could ask something you couldn't have anticipated. (Or, you could have anticipated it, but didn't). When that happens, you're going to need to buy yourself a few seconds to collect your thoughts--and your emotions.

In my decades of work as a communication and presentation skills coach, I have found most people use the same phrase to do this: "That's a great question." But that's not a great response. Here's why:

1. It's a reflex.

People say "that's a great question" in the same way my Uber driver says, "Have a safe flight," when she drops me at the airport, and I reflexively respond with "You too!" My Uber driver is not taking a flight, so my answer makes no sense. Your audience will quickly pick up on the fact that you're saying it after every question, without thinking. And that detracts from your credibility and likability.

2. You may offend someone.

Imagine that you respond, "That's a great question!" to the first three people who ask a question, and then don't say it to the fourth person. He or she may think: "Wait a second. Why wasn't my question a great question too?"

3. It's not true.

Yes, some questions are great. But many may be irrelevant, premature, unclear, pointless, hostile, confusing, or personal statements in the form of a question. While you don't have to opine on the quality of each question (especially aloud), don't call a question a great one if it isn't. 

So, what can you say in response to a question that will allow you a short stall? Here are 10 thoughtful replies:

  1. "I've given that question a lot of thought..."
  2. "I haven't thought about it from that perspective. But through that lens..."
  3. "I'm so excited that you asked that!"
  4. "We love that question around here, and here's why..."
  5. "This question keeps us up at night, too."
  6. "That's a very timely question because..."
  7. "Can you give me a little more context for that question?"
  8. "There's more than one way to answer that, but for now, let me share the simplest answer..."
  9.  "I need a moment to think about that."
  10.  "You raise a thoughtful question that calls for a thoughtful answer. May I take some time to think this through and get back to you?"

A great question is one that helps you and your clients build trust, credibility, connection, new awareness, and fresh insight. When you avoid answering solely based on reflex, you can save "that's a great question" for the ones that truly are.

Published on: Feb 24, 2020
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