How to respond to questions you don’t want to answer

If there’s one thing as certain as Mother Nature is uncertain, it’s that farmers are asked difficult and challenging questions daily.

North American consumers spend many hours a day immersed in the world of social media, looking for answers on how their food is produced.  Subsequently, answering and/or justifying farm practices has become par for the course for farmers, another ‘to-do’ to add to our supercharged lists.

Farmers not only play an important role in the food conversation, they have a duty to participate in those conversations by answering questions. This helps consumers make informed, balanced decisions and shows that farmers have nothing to hide.

Naturally, not all those questions are informed or polite. But how you answer them, online and off, could set the tone for more constructive dialogue in the future.

Survival Tips

Rather than politician your way out of answering a question (that is, not answering it by simply inserting your own topic and speak on), remember these tips:

  • Make sure you understand the question: You can’t adequately answer a question you don’t understand. To demonstrate your comprehension, reframe their question (“So, what you’re saying is…”) and include parts of their question in your response.
  • Beware negative questions: you never want to repeat any negative language in your answers since it reinforces those concepts.
  • Answer part of the question: Addressing only a segment of their question – the part you want to focus on – may be enough to satisfy the questioner.
  • Postpone: A tried and true media interview training tip: Tell them you appreciate the valid question, but you don’t necessarily have all the information currently on hand to answer it adequately or responsibly. Since you value the questioner’s input, tell them you will get back to them within [time frame] and ask for their contact information. Follow up!
  • Bridge: Another media interview trick is bridging. This is where you divert attention away from a sticky question towards one of your key messages. For example, you could say, “Well, that’s not quite right. Actually/The fact is…” or “What I think you really what to know is…” and move from a mine-laden topic to presenting the facts or explaining how you’re handling a certain situation.
  • Take your time: You can take a cue from politicians here as well: if you’re not quite sure how to respond to a difficult question, buy yourself some time by repeating or rephrasing it. Those few critical seconds will allow your brain to register the question, search for and access relevant information.
  • Watch your body language: While it can be hard to remember to be aware of how you’re using your arms when under fire, the way you hold your body is critical to how you’re perceived. As soon as you do anything that could be perceived as defensive (folded arms, avoiding eye contact), it sets off the fight or flight response in the other person, making them defensive by turn. Neutral body language sends the message that you have nothing to hide and look forward to engaging in a dialogue with them.
  • Watch your tone: While it can be very tempting to answer what you perceive as a ridiculous question with a curt ‘yes’ or ‘no’, you should always use the opportunity to include facts, key messages, and valid sources from which they can learn more.
  • Give the questioner some control over the conversation: This is a good tactic to use when someone is a little hot under the collar. By saying, “I understand how frustrating it can be. Would it be helpful if I shared some information about that with you?” the questioner is offered some degree of control over the conversation and should (!) calm down.
  • Be as coherent as possible: Coherence (understandability), psychologists say, is a key source of meaning. Make sure your answers are simple, concise, and free of industry jargon.

While responding to unwelcome or unpleasant questions can make you feel fragile, vulnerable and even downright irritable, you shouldn’t stick your head in the ground. Your goal should not be to dodge or deflect, but to satisfy the questioner. When you do, it’s win-win for everyone.

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