What to Do When Asked an Awkward Question

    Jeevan Sivasubramaniam Posted by Jeevan Sivasubramaniam, Managing Director, Editorial, Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc.

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    What to Do When Asked an Awkward Question

    It can be an awkward thing when someone asks you a question that you do not wish to answer for whatever reason, but trying to figure out how best to answer it is even more awkward. You inevitably stumble through some excuse or make apologies for yourself. There is another option (unless you are giving testimony in a court where a judge can compel you to answer): remain silent.

    Question-asking is essentially a power dynamic. The person asking the question requires information, and so by asking you a question puts themself in the dominant position (directing the nature of communications in a way that suits their needs). Because of this, we often feel compelled to answer, but you don't have to. Silence turns the power dynamic around because the question-asker is not receiving any response (as opposed to even a negative response such as "I don't have to answer that" which still reaffirms the power structure where one feels compelled to answer to another). When remaining silent, you should look directly into the eyes of the question-asker with no expression on your face. This is effective because it clearly conveys the message, "I heard you and I am choosing to not respond at all to your question" while also minimizing the chances for an argument (how would someone justify starting a fight with someone who just remained silent?). More importantly, this puts the question-asker in a terrifically awkward position where they now need to fill in the silent space with...what? More silence? Nope. Insults or protestations? Possibly, but that will just make it all that more awkward for them and make them look foolish. The only two viable options left to the asker are to either shift the topic (with or without an apology) or walk away looking a bit silly.


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