From the earliest age we’re trained to answer questions – and as quickly as possible. But in many presenting situations, it’s not the best thing. We work with many organisations who are involved in community consultation. They may be presenting proposals for new projects that the community don’t want (for example, a new road or windfarm) or suggesting changes to a much-loved city square. That means presenting to highly-charged public meetings and handling emotional Q&A sessions.

In handling emotionally-charged questions, don’t rush to answer. Instead follow the Question Cycle. This is adapted from Jerry Weissman’s book In the line of Fire. It’s an excellent book on handling Q&A, but most of his examples come from IPO presentations (when companies present to potential investors prior to launching on the stock exchange) and presidential campaign debates. His methodology requires a little adaptation for dealing with the more emotional situations of community consultation.

Here’s my adaptation of the Question Cycle:


So before you answer, take these three steps:

1. Listen effectively

Listen for both the substantive content of the question and any emotional concern. For example, the question below involves both the issue of birdstrike and emotional concern about birds dying.


2. Acknowledge the emotional concern

If the questioner is very emotional on the topic they won’t be able to listen fully to the substantive answer. Acknowledging the level of their concern will help them to  focus on your answer. And this should not be just a cliched “I understand how you feel.” Acknowledging their concern has two parts:

a) Naming their emotion eg: concerned, worried, unhappy, frustrated, and
b) Being specific about their concern.

For example: “I get that you’re concerned about birds being killed.”

Now that you’ve acknowledged the questioner’s emotional concern, you’re ready to move to the next step.

3. Restate the issue in a neutral manner

The purpose of restating the issue is to strip the original question of any emotional and sensational language whilst  keeping the focus on the key issue. This rephrasing has several benefits:

  • It shows you’ve listened
  • It sets you up to answer the question in a calm and reasonable way – as opposed to being defensive or aggressive.
  • It gives you thinking time
  • It may well trigger the answer for you.

Compare the responses below. On either side the response involves immediately answering the question – which has the answerer either come across as admitting guilt or being defensive:


The middle option has you stay calm and in control and sets you up to give a rational and reasoned answer.

When you were acknowledging the questioner’s emotional concern, you responded directly to that person. When you’re restating the issue, return to addressing the whole audience.

And you’re now ready to give your susbtantive answer in a calm and rational manner. So don’t rush to answer highly-charged questions. Follow these steps to remain calm and in control.

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