Navigating Difficult Questions: A Politician’s Playbook for CEOs and Executives

4 June 2023

Although it’s often better to answer difficult questions head on, sometimes you need to stall for time. Politicians are experts at dodging difficult questions and that’s why The Politician’s Playbook, if wielded judiciously and ethically, can be a powerful tool in your arsenal towards avoiding embarrassment before your peers.

Sailing Against Stormy Seas

Picture yourself as a seasoned sea captain, steering your grand vessel – your organisation – through a tumultuous sea of probing questions.

The waves are relentless, crashing against your deck, each one seeking to unsettle your course.

As a CEO, you’re expected to respond with precision, maintaining the course, no matter how high the waves may rise. But before we begin remember this: if your company has done something wrong, the best thing to do to restore its image is to admit fault and pay reparations to the effected parties. The second best thing to do is to manage the damage.

1. The Artful Deflection

When the question posed is not relevant to the discussion at hand, or when it infringes on personal boundaries or privacy deflection is an apt strategy. Just as a good skipper manoeuvres their ship to avoid the worst of a storm, so too can a CEO learn to steer the conversation away from turbulent topics.

Akin to trimming your sails to catch a favourable wind, you should learn to take the conversation away from the heart of a storm.

To practice this, find a trusted colleague and roleplay this scenario:

  • Have them ask hard-hitting questions and then work on gently guiding the conversation to softer waters.
  • When looking for a colleague, choose someone who is a known close listener.
  • Accept their criticism without question. This isn’t the place for a power struggle.

2. Broad Strokes and Generalisations

Sometimes, the specifics of an issue may be confidential or too intricate for your audience to fully understand.

To avoid causing embarrassment, politicians often paint their answers with a broad brush to avoid being painted into a corner. Their replies will be vague, ambiguous and cover generic elements that can pacify even the most relentless inquirer.

By reading current affairs to understand the mood of your audience and writing your responses to align with replies they will find easy on ears, you can avoid getting bogged down into the specifics.

3. Parrying with the Question

If you’re met with a loaded question filled with false assumptions or bias, you can either challenge it directly or parry it gently.

In a political duel, this is akin to examining the question’s validity or challenging its underlying assumption.

As a CEO, you can use this tactic as a buffer to ensure you are not made subject to further media furore.

Practise this by:

  • Identifying potential traps in questions you are liable to be asked.
  • Tasking a colleague to ask you ‘gotcha questions’ and then identifying them before giving a response.
  • Preparing responses in advance for worst-case scenarios.

3. Changing the Point of View

If you can’t disclose information because of confidentiality issues, legal restrictions or because the information is still uncertain you need to give a non-answer.

When a magician pulls off a visual trick, the real magic is keeping his sleight of hand hidden. Similarly, a politician may conjure up an answer that sounds compelling, yet it merely dances around the question.

To practice this:

  • Practice rephrasing a question in a way which answers another query (usually with the words “well, the real question we should be asking is…”).
  • Offer a seemingly important yet deflective fact or tale.
  • Mention a particularly less pressing issue is being examined which will result in the answers being given at a later time.

5. Repetition, Repetition, Repetition

Reiteration and repetition is an useful tool to reinforce key messages.

Just as a lighthouse’s beam persistently sweeps the sea, highlighting a safe passage, a politician’s talking points serve as their guiding light, offering a reliable return path when straying into challenging seas.

As a CEO, you can build your own lighthouse by identifying and repeating key points that encapsulate your vision, mission or accomplishments.

In this moment, talk about:

  • How your company is serving the community.
  • How your company values align with a charitable cause.
  • Repeating a slogan given to you from your crisis management team.

6. Delays: The Waiting Game

When you genuinely do not have enough information to give an informed response, it’s ethical to delay answering until you do. It’s better to provide a well-researched and thoughtful answer later than a potentially incorrect or misleading answer immediately.

But sometimes, even the most seasoned sea captain must weather the storm. Politicians often employ the tactic of calling for more information or research, allowing them to ‘batten down the hatches’ and weather the storm of a challenging question.

Practice calling for a brief pause, a moment of consideration or further investigation when navigating particularly stormy inquiries.

These phrases may be particularly helpful

  • …We are conducting an internal investigation
  • …That’s an excellent point which is being studied by our researchers
  • …We don’t have an answer to that at the moment, but expect to have one by

7. Appeal to the Heart

As long as it’s truthful and not used to manipulate, sharing personal anecdotes or making emotional appeals can be an ethical way to build rapport and express empathy.

This is akin to the sea captain telling tales of previous voyages to calm a worried crew. A heart-warming anecdote or personal revelation can shift the focus from a challenging question to shared understanding and empathy. To hone this tactic, think of personal stories that could be used to respond to a variety of questions.

Navigating difficult questions is an inevitable part of the CEO’s journey to retain their faith in your leadership.

8. A Lesson in Authenticity

Politicians may employ these techniques with dexterity, but they also underscore a critical aspect – the need for authenticity. To build trust, your audience needs to believe in your sincerity. Practice balancing these tactics with a commitment to transparency and honesty. It’s a fine tightrope to walk, but mastering it will ensure your audience sees you not just as a CEO, but a leader.

As you prepare to navigate the ever-unpredictable seas of communication, arm yourself with these proven techniques.

Master the art of deflection, learn to paint in broad strokes, parry the loaded question, master the smoke and mirrors of non-answers, echo your key points, learn to delay, when necessary, appeal to the heart and above all, always maintain your authenticity.

Remember, the sea of public opinion is a challenging and capricious beast, but with the right tactics and the right attitude, you can navigate it successfully. After all, the ultimate goal is not to dodge every wave, but to ensure that your ship stays on course and your crew believes in the journey.

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Are you poised to effectively navigate the diverse conversational waters that come with your leadership role?

From the shallows of small talk to the profound depths of strategic discussions, your communication prowess is integral. Contact me today to learn how you can elevate your skillset, becoming an even more empowered, authoritative, and accomplished speaker.