How to shine when put on the spot

Be ready, don't panic, and embrace strategic silence. Follow these 8 tips for responding to questions you're not prepared to answer.
How to shine when put on the spot

Nobody likes being put in a situation they're unprepared for or asked a question to which they don't know the answer. And, at work, this is doubly bad when you suspect there's some sort of agenda behind it. But it happens pretty regularly. So how do you deal with it when you're put on the spot?

Be ready. Being well versed in your subject matter is, in general, a good defence. Obviously, you can't actually prepare for being put on the spot, because the whole point is you won't know the answer. But you may have a pretty good idea of the kinds of bosses and colleagues who put people on the spot and even the kinds of questions they may ask. So if you are at least prepared for the situation to occur, you can have a couple of playing-for-time responses ready. Indeed, you might even want to practise quick-fire questions with colleagues (in the way that politicians practise for press conferences). Few things look better than giving a perfect answer to a "gotcha" question.

Don't panic. If you are given a question you struggle with, it's OK. Work is not an oral exam or a quiz show with buzzers. Hopefully, you'll have your playing-for-time answer ready so you can scratch your chin thoughtfully and say, "I'll need to think about this for a moment." You might also ask the person a question to clarify what they are after.

If you know a bit of the answer, give what you do have. Here, there is no point in trying to bluff and pretend you know it all. Just tell them what you do know and what you don't. Be clear and straightforward. Finish by saying that, as you cannot give a full answer, you'll be happy to follow up with more details in due course.

If you don't know, then say so. You might respond with, "I don't have the information I need to answer your question, but I'm happy to provide an answer for you later." You might also say, "That's a good question and one I look forward to answering," or even ask, "Do you have a view on this?" Finally, you might say, "Unless anyone else can answer this, perhaps we can move on to the next item." The point here is that, although you cannot answer, you should give a response that is positive, and then, by suggesting you move on, you draw a line under it.

Keep this response short, and don't be afraid to leave a strategic silence afterwards. Do not get drawn into a long, rambling explanation or apology. You have done nothing wrong. If the person in question keeps pressing you, stay calm and continue to explain that you are happy to prepare an answer for them later. If they try to imply that you are unprepared, just say, "I had not been led to expect this subject would be discussed, but I will happily answer the question later."

Bear in mind that it's not always about you. If someone nods at you or catches your eye before they call on you, they might not be trying to stitch you up. Rather, they could be trying to help someone else, change the subject, or create a diversion. You're being asked to take one for the team — and if you play along, your tact will be appreciated and remembered.

If the person is doing it on purpose, consider your options. If it's a one-time occurrence, let it go. If it's a regular occurrence, it may be worth speaking to the person in question. As with many office beefs, they may not realise they're doing it. Or they may even think that asking tough questions is a desirable thing to do. But, if you really know that they are doing it intentionally, you may want to call the person out. One way to do it might be to say, "There seems to be a pattern of you asking me questions I can't answer in meetings. I'm worried that we're working at cross purposes here. So why don't you email me a list of the areas you want covered the day beforehand. That way we'll know what's expected." Do this and there's a good chance they'll never put you on the spot again.

Remember, it's not all bad. Being put on the spot teaches you how to improve, think on your feet, and, perhaps, develop verbal sparring skills.

Rhymer Rigby is an FM contributor and author of The Careerist: Over 100 Ways to Get Ahead at Work. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Jack Hagel, an FM editorial director, at Jack.Hagel@aicpa-cima.com.