5 Tips For Responding To Tough Questions

Over the past decade, we’ve had the opportunity to incorporate social media into our lives as a readily-available communication tool. Some people (Ok, Boomer) may complain that this has led to a rise in skepticism in society or lack of deeper understanding, but in reality, these channels have given a larger audience for the conversations that were already taking place at the coffee shop or in the newspaper. Along with this increase in conversation, comes the prevalence of emotional, tough questions.

When there is disagreement or criticism, these conversations often go down an unproductive path. The conversation often become heated with emotion and can easily lead down a road where no one walks away better than they were before.

How do we form a better response that opens windows for more productive discussion instead of slamming the proverbial door in the face of someone who disagrees?

tips answering tough questions how much you care

Here are five Cs that can help you down that road to better responses for emotional, critical, tough questions.

Let them know you Care

Our natural instinct when someone approaches us with criticism or disagreement is to become defensive and follow up with a “Well, actually…” statement. Before you share the information you want the other person to know, just take a moment to acknowledge their concern.

This can be done by letting them know you care about the topic at hand. If someone approaches me with a decision to go plant based to reduce environmental impact, even though I may disagree with their solution, I can take a moment to step back and let them know I share a concern for sustainability. We’re not talking about a group hug here. I’m just trying to establish common ground.

You don’t always have to share the same concern, but you should at least acknowledge what is being expressed. People often just want to know they’re being heard.

Oftentimes, this step involves asking questions to clarify the concern being expressed. Their statement may be vague or broad, so asking questions can help you better identify what they’re looking to discuss and prevent you opening Pandora’s box and bringing up concerns that weren’t yet on their radar. Don’t ask questions to be critical. Ask to better understand where they are coming from (What do you mean by ___? Where did you hear that? Do you have an example of ___?). This is active listening.

If I jump out the gate responding to critic of beef’s sustainability sharing stats on water use, land use, and nutrition, but they had defined sustainability strictly as greenhouse gas emissions, I’m not addressing their concern. Instead, I’ve opened the door for them to ask if their are other aspects of sustainability they should be concerned about and the conversation isn’t going to address what they wanted to discuss.

I’ve spent more time on this C than the others, but it’s critical to get the conversation off on the right foot. This step can be difficult to put into practice. Taking just a moment to let the other person know you care can go a long way toward ensuring your message is received.

Illustrate how you are Capable

Once you’ve taken a moment to ensure you’re on the same page and addressing the concern being expressed, then you can take time to share your perspective. However, in these emotional conversations, sharing facts and science are rarely well-received.

Share how you are capable of addressing their concern by providing personal examples and illustrations that incorporate the sciences and statistics you want to share. Make it personal and specific. Bring the science to life. You’re much more likely to resonate using this approach rather than throwing the book at them. People don’t really care about the science.

Keep it Concise

Working with farmers and ranchers on a daily basis, I’ve learned that we’re often storytellers. We are passionate about our work and want to share everything we know with everyone we meet through storytelling. That often results in a long narrative that wanders off topic raising concerns that were not initially part of the conversation.

The average sound bite today is 7-12 seconds. Our average attention span is 8 seconds – that’s shorter than a goldfish’s. Convey your message through illustrations, but keep it concise and relevant to the conversation at hand. I’m not suggesting to only speak in sound bites, but be cognizant of short attention spans.

consumer science communication

Make it Conversational

Cow-calf operation. Is that a type of surgery? Satiety. What the heck did you say?

Jargon. Industry terminology. Technical language can often distract from the message you’re trying to share. Ensure that you’re speaking to the topic using terms that your audience will be familiar with. Don’t go to the greatest depths of your knowledge right off the bat. Some people are just looking for basic answer. Then, when you get permission, dive deeper into your passion. Word choice can make a big impact in keeping it conversational.

Retain your Credibility

Do not attempt to defend everyone. You do not have to be an expert on everything. Have a high level response to most questions, but you shouldn’t be afraid to say “I don’t know.” Just don’t stop there. Follow it up with, “let’s find someone who does know the answer,” and actually follow up to gain and keep your credibility.

Check your bias at the door. While we feel very confident in our knowledge of topics we’re very passionate about, other perspectives are important, too. Keep in mind, everyone you will ever meet knows something you don’t.

lessons learned through advocacy and conversations

Responding to tough questions

What tough questions have you received recently? Did you know where to start in a response? Might these tips help you better respond in your next encounter with someone who disagrees with you?

I want to hear from you. Let me know if this helps in any way and if you’d like to see more tips like these on the blog. I am lucky enough to have the opportunity to share these and more with farmers and ranchers every week through workshops and training events throughout the country and am always glad to help where I can.

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Ryan Goodman lives in Colorado, is an avid trail and ultrarunner, and works with farmers and ranchers to help them share their stories of agriculture and how food is raised. Connect with Ryan online as @BeefRunner. #TeamBeef.
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