Bridging is the most effective technique I know for handling difficult questions, whether those questions arise in the context of a business meeting, a media interview or the Q&A session that traditionally follows a presentation.
Bridging is, crucially, a three-stage process, which neatly fits into an ABC format:
- Acknowledge the question, or Answer it briefly, if you can
- Create a verbal Bridge back to the comfort zone of the positive key messages you are focused on delivering
- Communicate one or more of those messages.
Bridging is a technique that is best used in response to the following types of difficult questions:
- Where you don’t know the answer;
- Where the answer is confidential;
- Where the answer would take you off track and divert you from what you want and need to talk about.
In these circumstances an artful bridging phrase can work wonders. Good examples include:
‘I’m not an expert on that, but what I can tell you is…’
‘I can’t comment on rumours… the facts are…’
‘That’s interesting … but I think it’s much more important to focus on …’
‘Let me answer that…by saying this…’
‘I can’t speak for that organisation…what I can say about this one is…’.
One of my favourite bridging phrases is: ‘Before I answer that, can I just give you some background/context/the big picture.’ That approach enables you to get back to your most important message from whatever question you are asked. And if you are lucky, they won’t remember that you haven’t answered the question!
The need for preparation
Bridging is most effective when combined with careful preparation designed to clarify your key messages, their priority order and the proof points that support them, and anticipate likely challenges.
The best way to do this is to list your messages (as above) on one flip chart (or large sheet of paper), list likely questions (including the ones you dread) on another and then work out how each question could lead you back to one or more of those messages via a bridging phrase.
It’s always a good idea to restrict your messages to no more than 3-5. Neuroscience tells us that people can’t hold more than three or four chunks of information in our working (short-term) memories at one time. Too many messages is a recipe for information overload and confusion.
In some instances bridging back to a message from a particular question is too much of a stretch: in cases like these you can devise a ‘reactive message’, which will be brought into play only in answer to that particular question.
This is an exceptionally useful exercise, which offers you watertight preparation for any difficult encounter, especially if you go through it with another person – or, even better, a small group – prepared to challenge your point of view.
Remember, though, that bridging is best used sparingly and only in response to certain types of difficult questions. If you answer every question with a bridging phrase you will start to sound like a politician – and no one wants that!
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Clearsay Communications works with professionals from all sectors to improve their spoken communication skills for use in presentations, media interviews and meetings of all kinds. To find out what we could do for you, go to the home page.