How to Respond to Difficult Questions

Have you ever found yourself “on the spot,” forced to respond to difficult questions?  Regardless of whether the questions came from clients inquiring about their cases, from a senior partner asking about a brief you wrote, or from a judge cross-examining you during a motion hearing, it’s always a frustrating experience when you’re asked difficult questions that you haven’t anticipated and aren’t fully prepared to answer.

It’s even worse when you know that you know the correct answer, but for whatever reason, can’t seem to coax it to the surface from within the dark recesses of your brain.  What do you do in those situations, when you need to buy some extra time to gather your thoughts?

If you’re like many lawyers, you probably stumble and stammer your way through a jumble of meanderings and half-processed ideas until you can finally find your train of thought and begin answering intelligently.  Unfortunately, the first few moments of your answer are far too precious to waste on disconnected thoughts and random musings.  You can’t afford to begin with a bad impression.  You need the first words out of your mouth to not only demonstrate your knowledge of the topic, but to also display your command of the situation.  How can you do that when you have no idea what to say and desperately need a few extra moments to gather your thoughts?

Luckily for you, there are some simple techniques you can use to buy that extra time you need before responding to a difficult question.

1. Pause (Part 1). Why do so many lawyers feel the need to immediately respond after they’ve been asked a question?  Is it a need to demonstrate their command of the situation?  Because they’re afraid someone else will jump in and dominate the conversation?  Or maybe it’s because silence feels so awkward?  Whatever the reason, many lawyers cannot resist the urge to fill the silence with mindless noise.   As soon as the question has been asked, they feel obligated to fill the gap with sound.  But yielding to that temptation robs you of the opportunity to gather your thoughts and organize your response.

You would be amazed at what your brain can process in the span of a few seconds.  If you would allow yourself just two or three seconds to compose yourself and think about what you intend to say, your brain will usually find the correct answer for you.  Unfortunately, few speakers are willing to be quiet long enough to let themselves think.  How you handle those few moments of silence depends on your level of confidence.  For the uncertain speaker, those three seconds can feel like an eternity, especially when a judge or a senior partner is the person who asked the question.  For the confident lawyer, however, that same three or four second pause feels completely natural.

To immediately improve your ability to handle difficult questions, strive to become accustomed to silence and comfortable with moments of silence during a conversation.  Develop the habit of waiting for a moment or two before responding to questions (regardless of their difficulty), and pausing will soon become second nature to you.

2. Repeat the question. In conjunction with a pause, this technique can buy you plenty of time to formulate your response.  Repeating the question is optional when speaking to a single individual, but if you ever find yourself speaking before a large audience, this technique is essential.  In a larger room, many audience members won’t hear the question the first time it’s asked.  By repeating the question, you’ll not only include the entire audience in the conversation, you’ll also buy yourself precious time to plan your response.

3. Pause (Part 2). Sometimes, you’ll need more than three or four seconds to respond.  It’s appropriate to tell the questioner that you’ll be taking more time (“Let me think about that for a moment before I respond”), but you can also remain quiet and think about your response.  As we mentioned earlier, most people are uncomfortable with silence.  If you maintain eye contact while pausing to collect your thoughts, your questioner will often feel the need to fill the void of silence.  When that happens, they’ll usually provide you with more information, such as “I’m asking because…” or “What I’m trying to determine is…”  This additional information will often help you tailor your response to the questioner’s actual needs.

4. Ask the questioner to repeat their question. Asking your questioner to repeat the question can be perceived as an obvious delay tactic, so don’t use this technique too often.  It’s best to limit your use of this technique to those situations where you honestly don’t hear the entire question.

5. Clarify the question. Presumably, the reason you’re being questioned is because someone wants an answer, not because they enjoy harassing you.  If that’s true, there’s nothing wrong with clarifying the scope of their question so that you can provide them with a more relevant response.  Asking clarification questions (ex. “When you say, ‘injuries,’ are you referring to all reported on-the-job injuries, or only those that required medical treatment?” or “Define for me what you mean by ‘web presence.’  Are you referring to just our website, or to all of the inbound links and AdWords campaigns we’ve created?”) not only gives you more time to think, it also allows you to present a more targeted and valuable answer.

As a lawyer, you’re probably going to find yourself answering lots of difficult questions throughout your career.  Apply these techniques and you’ll not only appear more confident and more authoritative, but your responses will become better organized and more persuasive.

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7 thoughts on “How to Respond to Difficult Questions

  1. Very useful. I will have an oportunity to use the suggestions next week.
    I always learn something new from your comments. Thank you.

  2. Great advice on everything you have sent me. I have a problem that I need to discuss with you. I know you are very busy but I am getting no where with other attys. and I would appreciate your advice.

    Robye L. Messer

  3. Very good tips, Thanks!

    An additional tool I keep in my toolbox (an analog to your Clarify the Question) is a technique whereby I state an implicit assumption. For example, “If by saying “X,” we can assume “Y,” then I would say…”

    Further clarification usually follows, with the questioner giving you the opportunity to “modify” your response to fit the new parameters. What this has done, in reality, is given you a few precious more seconds to mentally craft your killer response.

    I always look forward to your tips. Keep ’em coming!


  4. I continue to appreciate all of your trial tips – this one included. Please keep it up, it’s making a difference in my law practice. Thanks.

  5. Dear Elliot,

    I am sincerely grateful for generously sharing your invaluable touch of ingenuity with me.The article “How to Respond to Difficult Questions” is quite informative and demonstrative of, I believe, your very keenly researched experience in the court room. Bravo! Thanks a lot.