The author and psychoanalyst Viktor E Frankl is widely credited with writing the immortal words “between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
Frankl was writing on the essence of freedom, and how freedom is the power to choose one’s response in any given set of circumstances. This guiding philosophy applies to so many facets of life.
One facet I’d like to explore today, oriented more towards the workplace, is how we respond to those tough and challenging questions we will inevitably face, be it in the boardroom, the investment committee, from colleagues or the media.
Between the question and our response to those questions we have a choice.
The space between the question and the answer
We can bluff, obfuscate, avoid, ignore, attack or even, at worst, lie. Perhaps not the best courses of action, although in some situations each may have its merits.
When asked by my wife how many glasses of wine I’ve had of an evening I may resort to one or all of them! But when facing the media questioning your lockdown exit strategy, or irate investors who have seen the value of their portfolio drop 30%, they are less than ideal.
We have other choices.
The first, is to allow the space, the silence, the pause, between question and answer, between stimulus and response. In that space one achieves so much.
First, it’s a compliment to the questioner, and a demonstration of respect that tells them, “your question is worthy of thought, of contemplation”. You are valuing the questioner.
Donald Trump, casually dismissing journalist questions with a brash, instantaneous response may not show much respect. Perhaps this is the objective?
It also shows that you have the gravitas and confidence to not be rushed into an answer. Picture the eager intern being interviewed, tripping over his words in a rush to answer questions, in a desperate effort to please. Having the courage to stop and think speaks volumes.
You show you are equal status, and you will be more likely to hit the right messages.
But what of radio interviews? You have no sight of the speaker so extended thinking pauses may indicate they are flummoxed, at a loss for words. Hence the old adage, “no dead air”. And what of the Zoom call, our current favourite medium? Too long and this could be perceived to be aggressive. Too short and you’re cutting them off.
Another obvious choice is candour. And even better, candour coupled with authenticity.
One recent example of this I have found is Rishi Sunak, Chancellor of the Exchequer, in the daily media briefings on the Coronavirus.
He has always appeared truthful and has not insulted the viewer by sugar coating the reality of what this situation means for us and the economy.
He has always appeared to be on top of the facts, but when unsure does not try and bluff, and defers to the experts. And he has always done this in a way that is sincere, thoughtful and with authenticity.
Authenticity here being the key word, in that being yourself is a sure way to gain the trust of the audience.
Conversely, being seen to be playing a part creates a dissonance and hence lack of trust.
You also have that choice to be proactive, and to use Q&A sessions as an opportunity to drive home a higher message.
In all government media briefings there has been that underlying message, to “stay home, protect the NHS, and save lives”.
Tough questions are an opportunity to bridge to the key message you want to leave the audience with, be it the investment case, the benefits of time in the market as opposed to timing the market, or the advantages of going long volatility instead of shorting the S&P.
Don’t get sucked into a low-status game of playing the rope-a-dope. It worked for Mohammed Ali but Q&A is not all about the late knockout punch. It’s about trust through consistency.
Many of us are terrified of the Q&A session. Dig a little and we’re worried we won’t know the answer. Dig a little deeper and it’s the fear of looking foolish, not being perfect. It’s not about you!
Choose to crush that inner narcissist, and think about it from the listener’s perspective. They are, in most cases, trying to arrive at the truth, and your role is to help them get to the truth, not to be perfect.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a Hungarian psychologist in his book Flow, defines flow as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz”.
People who embrace flow embrace the element of risk and lose the consciousness of the self. The ego recedes into the background. And that’s how it should be in the Q&A session. Excessive self-consciousness or being overly self-centered impedes flow. Make the choice to lose consciousness of the self and thereby achieve flow.
Furthermore in sales, the worst response to your pitch is a resounding wall of silence. Questions are an expression of interest in you, your product, your firm. Therefore the Q&A session is an opportunity to capitalise on that interest.
Each question is a buying signal, the implication being that if you successfully address the question you take a step forward to closing the deal. And we should not forget that it can sometimes be a risk to even ask a question, and the dangers of appearing foolish therein.
Don’t be that smug CFO who once humiliated a junior analyst at an AGM for asking a question about valuation methods used. He lost the respect of the room in the 45 seconds it took him to give the answer. Or Elon Musk telling analysts on an earnings call that “boring, bonehead questions are not cool”.
This may not have endeared him to fund managers with a fiduciary responsibility to their investors. Heavy short-selling began soon after. Empathise with the questioner and value the question.
Building on the concept of flow, and welcoming questions, all too often the presentation itself is seen as the opportunity to show off your talents, your product, the firm, and the Q&A session is viewed as an altogether different exercise where you’re going to face a grilling. It’s where the unpleasantness begins.
The clue is in the phrases we often hear such as, “feel free to interrupt” or, “any questions?” said with fear and trepidation!
Questions should be welcomed and indeed invited all the way through the presentation or pitch, and there should ideally be a smooth transition between the pitch itself and the Q&A session as a result.
And finally, keep your cool, even when the attack dogs are baying for your blood. Lose your cool and it’s all over. As Epictetus wrote, “any person capable of angering you becomes your master; he can anger you only when you permit yourself to be disturbed by him.”
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