Answering Questions with Grace
Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person. Colossians 4: 6 (NIV)
Over the past 20 years teaching basic public speaking courses, I have seen how difficult it is for beginning speakers have an open Q & A time with the audience at the end of a speech.
Many can deliver their prepared messages clearly, but are intimidated to stand before an audience and answer questions. Often, they end their speech clumsily and nearly run from the podium. When they do try to respond, they often ramble, get defensive, or give irrelevant replies. Unfortunately, audience members leave with a less clear and positive lasting message than they should have.
My advice about answering questions in any public communication context consists of four points:
- Listen to the substance of the question. If you are highly anxious, calm yourself enough to hear what the person is asking. Often those asking questions are nervous or unsure of what they want to know, so it is important to listen carefully for the underlying message or emotion from which they are asking.
- Paraphrase confusing questions. It is okay to ask for restatement or paraphrase to make sure you understand the question before you jump into answering. Again, often people are not clear about what question they want to ask, or they may ask multiple things in one question.
- Avoid defensive reactions. This is where grace and salt come in. Don’t look at questions as attacks. Be gracious to believe the other person wants to know about what they are asking or that they have sincere concerns and/or vested interests in this topic. If they seem to be contradicting or disbelieving something you have said, this is your chance to give them additional data, or examples, or even Scripture to support your case. The attitude, tone of voice, and nonverbal signs you use to respond can encourage them to listen or turn them away.
- Answer as briefly as possible. Long, rambling answers or responses that do not directly address the question rarely satisfy the one asking or move understanding forward. Brief, clear responses are best even if the answer is simply “I don’t know.”
Answering questions can be far more challenging than making a speech. But you can learn more through interaction with others than simply delivering a one-sided message. So, when you are preparing a message, also think about the possible questions your hearers might ask and how you could best respond to them.
Reflection: When was the last time a question got under your skin or led you to be defensive? Do you open yourself to questions from others or do you just deliver your message and then expect to walk away? What does seasoning your speech with salt mean to you?
Today’s Challenge: Practice today the four points presented about responding to questions with grace. When someone asks you a question, whether in person or through electronic means, use these four points as a checklist before you respond.
–Donna M. Elkins, Spalding University