Challenging Questions - Spontaneity Shop

Challenging Questions

27 June 2024
Alex MacLaren

This happened last night – a question in the UK election campaign to the two main party leaders, live on the BBC in front of a huge crowd. Have a look. You don’t need to watch the contenders’ responses, it will take 20 seconds.

Often when coaching senior clients I am asked how to handle challenging questions, and this is an strong example for a number of reasons:

  • It’s a question that can simply be answered Yes or No, often called a ‘closed question’. When interrogating like this, we aren’t asking openly for information, expertise, evidence or reasoning. At best we are asking for a specific brick to add to an almost-finished wall.
  • The set up and the question, first explicitly and then implicitly, are designed to insult and provoke. Being insulted puts the contenders in a terrible ‘Catch 22’: rise to the insult, which escalates the disagreement and conflict further? or turn the other cheek and risk seeming like you can be bullied?
  • It’s a steadily hostile statement issued in front of a crowd. This means it is meant to lower the candidates’ status in public. The studio audience, like the rest of us, becomes excited and aroused about the human drama of moments like this. It’s like the other children in a playground gathering to watch a confrontation, in case (maybe in the hope) it will become a fight.

(NB: a lot of the water-cooler chat today has been about the BBC’s failure in allowing performative more-heat-than-light-questions like this to be aired, but that’s another issue and not one I’ll address here)

How to handle it? Well in this case, both candidates simply use it as a cue to talk about their respective positive records. The effect is that they seem like typical modern media-trained politicians in a live situation – ‘don’t get involved in an unscripted conversation or you lose control of the narrative’. Unfortunately that simply compounds the sense of irrelevance many voters currently feel in modern democracies – that leaders are not listening.

  • When you get a closed question, look for the statement of someone’s feelings. Ask yourself WHY they feel that way. In this case, this is a man who is disappointed with the lack of charisma of current leaders, and anxious about inheritance tax (he said so to journalists after the broadcast). In some circumstances a confident politician might even begin a direct conversation with the questioner along those lines (Obama used to do this well).
  • When you are insulted, slow down. In this case it’s not really personal – neither Sunak or Starmer had met the man before, and their public profiles are big enough that they have licence to look past the slight without seeming like they can be bullied. It they had immediately risen to the insult they would have seemed to be operating on his own level. They say never fight a pig – you both end up covered in shit, but the pig likes it.
  • When you want to maintain your status in public, remember that power makes  choices and is not triggered by those with much less power. This member of the public turned out to be a Brexit voter, so likely to back neither candidate and instead will probably end up backing Nigel Farage. When the more powerful person is challenged in status, kneejerk reactions will look testy. You have permission to be the grown up in the room, and set an example of proper behaviour – they can’t humiliate you without your permission. Stay with the challenge and don’t react at all, yet. Let your habit be to make positive assumptions: let the meanness go, and notice that they are aggrieved and showing off in public. The reasonable point you can salvage from the insult above is that modern politics seems to lack the stateswomen and statesmen of before. You can take this point on, and validate it; instead of challenging the insult and boasting about your record (both Sunak and Starmer tried this), you can agree with it – and talk about how this problem motivates your own political ambitions, and which leaders inspired you. If you are at your best you will always be looking for something to Yes And.

You’ll see this pattern most often in charismatic leaders, and this morning I came across an example; I was listening as I walked my dog to an account of a summit meeting during WWII, when Joseph Stalin publicly insulted Winston Churchill (who was present) repeatedly over the dinner toasts. Churchill felt that to stay in the room would have validated scandalous behaviour; indulging it would have risked patronising a very dangerous peer.

So he walked out, with the fate of Europe potentially in the balance. That night his ambassador to the Soviet Union, Archie Clark Kerr, insisted to Churchill that maintaining an offended position ongoing was incompetent diplomacy, and that despite Stalin’s rudeness it was Churchill that was making a mess of things. Churchill had a powerful ego, but also could see the big picture and unlike Stalin had a sense of humour about himself; away from the negotiating chamber that night he licked his wounds and then set up a private one-to-one with only himself, Stalin and their respective interpreters. That meeting went unexpectedly well – Churchill’s warmth, understanding and compassion for Stalin’s ego allowed him to look beyond the short term slight, and by choosing a private space to rebuild the relationship removed the risk of further ‘public ego volatility’.

Good luck to our leaders in all this year’s elections – and to you, as your ‘voters’ test you! Responses and questions (especially challenging ones) welcome.

Challenging Questions

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