How to Field Hostile Questions During an Interview

When faced with a crisis situation or controversy, many reporters and citizen activists will ask hostile questions of spokespeople, be it in the media, during speeches and committee hearings or at annual stockholder meetings. It’s a situation almost every communications professional will face at one point or another. With that in mind, here are some options for fielding questions in a hostile environment.

â–¶ First deal with highly charged objections by reframing questions in neutral terms without repeating the hostile words or tone. You can gracefully revise an antagonistic question by saying, “I think what you’re asking me is...”

â–¶ Calmly ask to have vindictive questions repeated. This technique gives the questioner a chance to reconsider the rash statement and often succeeds in evoking moderation in the questioner’s phrasing before you respond.

â–¶ Use a short pause after a particularly hostile question. This will call attention to the question and may shift the public’s sympathy to your side. Also, it may help slow down the pace in a heated debate and give you time to respond in a measured tone.

â–¶ Identify the real concerns behind the question. Remember, questions are clues. For example, is the questioner uninformed, been personally affected by this incident or does he or she have a general distrust of the agency?
On the other hand, an organized group of citizen activists might simply be “credentializing” and showing off in order to get their own story in the media. Knowing the person asking the question will help you respond more effectively.

â–¶ When any of the sensory modes—sight, touch, sound and feeling—are used in hostile questions, the specific mode should be reflected in your response. This technique, used judiciously, will indicate that you are carefully listening to the question and sensitive to the feelings of the questioner. This will have a calming, disarming effect on the questioner.

•    If the questioner uses the sound mode, “The school’s plan sounds unrealistic,” say, “I hear your concern...however, let me say that the agency will....”
•    If the questioner uses a sight mode, “I don’t see why you...,” say, “Let me show you how the agency will....”
•    If the questioner uses a touch mode, “I can’t grasp why you...,” say, “Let me touch on several issues....”
•    If the questioner uses a feeling mode, “I have some strong feelings about the welfare of...,” say, “I, too, am sensitive to their welfare and....”

â–¶ If the questioner doesn’t use a particular mode, use a nonsensory response, such as “I understand,” or use an affirmative gesture.

â–¶ One way to have a disarming effect on questioners is to help them identify with you and other people working on the issue. Since it is always easier for a dissenter to criticize a bricks and mortar institution, include statements about the agency’s conscientious, knowable, hard-working, well-intended staff and how you have absolute faith in your team.

â–¶ Ask the media and community to help you. Give everyone the feeling that, while your agency has the issue under control, no one does anything alone.

â–¶ Personalize your own interest and involvement in the issue. Also, use the first person (e.g., “I am concerned about this matter” or “I’m a concerned citizen too and...” or “I will see to it that....”).

â–¶ Especially in a hostile environment, respond with brief statements. Overstatements can add weight to the kernel of truth in the opponent’s position, as drawn-out responses might suggest that the agency is being defensive or trying to talk itself out of a box.

â–¶ When in a hostile environment, answer only the question asked and avoid going for nuance in your response. Frequency is better than length. Use simple sentence structures and more periods than commas when you speak.

â–¶ Be positive and confident. Resist the temptation to go head-on with hostile reporters or irate citizens, regardless of their insinuations. Don’t counter mean-spirited attacks with the same negative tone or more nastiness. Avoid any word or phrase that connotes vindictiveness.

This article was written by James Onder, a communications trainer. He can be reached at 301.367.7023.