Response Strategies

11 Strategies to Buy Yourself Time When Asked Difficult Questions

Guest blog by Diane Windingland

Delay techniques

Has someone ever asked you a question and your mind went blank? Maybe it was at a meeting, an interview, or at an event. Maybe you froze up or started to ramble.
What if you had a few techniques to buy just a little more time before you answer, time to grasp a concept, or time to formulate your thoughts?
11 common delay tactics (some of which can be combined) are:

  • Pause for a breath
  • Repeat or rephrase the question
  • Clarify the question
  • Talk about the question
  • Answer part of the question
  • Acknowledge and pivot
  • Repeat your own or someone else’s words
  • Take a step back & summarize
  • Ask for time to think about it/get more information
  • Take a sip of water
  • Turn it over to someone else

Consider trying, and combining, the first 3 techniques as your go-to delay tactics.

Pause for a breath

A pause of 3-5 seconds has many advantages: it increases your mental clarity, gives you time to think, and makes you look deliberate and more confident.
When you are asked an unanticipated question, your brain may interpret it as a threat, and you may experience fight or flight response symptoms including increased heart rate, breathing rate, and blood pressure. You are going into survival mode and your higher-level thinking may be compromised. Taking a deep breath or two can reduce anxiety and help you think more clearly.
A pause also gives you time to formulate a response, which may start with rephrasing or clarifying the question, which buys you even more time.
A pause can give the impression of thoughtful deliberation and confidence. When you pause, it is an indication you are listening to what is being said and are processing a response. Blurting out a response can signal nervousness or can indicate that you weren’t really listening, but only waiting for your turn to speak.
To practice pausing, even when you can answer right away, try taking an extra breath before answering.

Repeat or rephrase the question

Repeating or rephrasing a question not only buys time, but it ensures that you and the questioner understand the question. Yes, you read that correctly. Sometimes the person asking the question doesn’t fully understand what they are asking. Repeating the question, in addition to showing that you understand the question (or not), also lets the questioner hear their question, which may encourage them to modify or clarify their question. Plus, it reduces the likelihood that you will spend time answering a question, only to have the questioner say, “No. I wasn’t asking that . . .”
Fortunately, most questions are straightforward. You can listen for keywords to repeat.
Let’s say you are at a job interview, and the interviewer asks, “Why do you want to work for our company?”
You can respond, “So, you’d like to know why I want to work here? Okay, . . .”
One caveat on repeating the question–If the question is framed with negative words, you might not want to repeat the negative words. For example, let’s say you are a coach, and a prospective client asks, “Why are you charging so much for your program?” Rather than repeat, “You are wondering why I charge so much?” You can rephrase the question in a more positive way, such as, “You are wondering whether you are getting a good value for the price, right?” And, then you can speak to a more positive version of the question.

Clarify the question

Some questions are confusing, or tricky, such as, “What are five things you could do with a paperclip, other than holding papers together?”
You might respond by repeating/rephrasing the question, and then clarifying the intent, indicating what you believe to be the purpose of the question, and saying something like, “What are five things that I could do with a paperclip? So, you want some out-of-the-box ideas, right?”
You can lead into clarifying the question with typical lead-in phrases, such as:

  • So . . .
  • So, what you’re asking is . . .
  • What I hear you saying is . . .
  • Are you saying . . . ?
  • It sounds like . . .
  • In other words . . .
  • From what I understand, you want to know . . .
  • If I understood you correctly . . .
  • Correct me if I’m wrong. What you’re saying is . .

Speak off the top of your head, without sounding like you’ve lost your mind, by using delay tactics before you respond.

Pause. Rephrase. Clarify.

You can learn more from Diane Windingland in her blog

Diane Windingland, Virtual Speech Coach, coaches and trains subject matter experts to present with clarity and confidence. She is the author of several books on communication, including her latest book, Impromptu Speaking: 10 Strategies to Think on Your Feet Without Tripping Over Your Tongue.

Dan Ram ignites the stage as an in-person event and virtual event MC/ Moderator & Speaker at over 100 events a year.  He has shared the stage with international luminaries including President Barack Obama, Sir Richard Branson, Reid Hoffman, Nico Rosberg, and Grammy-winning artists and celebrities.  He has also been recognized as a Top 40 under 40 leader 2020 as well as a Top 100 Yale Alumni in Technology 2021.  Level up your communication skills through his course and mastermind  “Speaking Success”.  His passion is to inspire people with his motto ‘Start Now Start Simple’ in building a future we all want to live in

1 thought on “11 Strategies to Buy Yourself Time When Asked Difficult Questions”

  1. I’ve had a few awkward moments like this. I’ll tuck these strategies away for the future. Thanks for sharing these ideas Diane!

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