Speed Kills in Q&A

An HBO documentary, “The Fastest Woman on Earth,” tells the inspiring but tragic story of Jessi Combs, a professional race car driver who set multiple speed records, but who ultimately died trying to hit 619 mph in a jet-powered vehicle. Speed kills even professionals. A cautionary tale for drivers–and for business people.

One of the most important qualities for success in business is rapid response time. Every person is expected to react quickly to problems and to come up with prompt solutions. But in responding to tough questions, speed can kill, too.

Tough questions are a part of the territory in business and in these trying post-COVID times, the terrain is rougher than ever. In every facet of life, people are in search of answers to their problems, so their questions are often loaded with emotional challenges. If a responder answers too rapidly and with equal emotion, be it defensive or contentious, the battle is joined and the exchange heads rapidly downhill—a lose-lose engagement.

In preparing for tough questions, a results-driven mindset often involves an approach known as “Rude Q&A,” in which a list of anticipated challenging questions is assembled and then matched with a list of appropriate answers. This approach has a small flaw: People don’t ask questions as written; most questions come out in long, rambling, convoluted sentences. This causes the responder to scramble for the right answer, at best, or the wrong answer, at worst.

The solution is to slam on the brakes and not think of the answer. Stay in the moment. As the question is being asked, listen carefully and identify the central issue embedded within the convolution.

What a concept: Listen! Listening is becoming a lost practice in our culture. For those people who still retain a semblance of politeness, listening has become a matter of waiting for one’s turn to speak. And for those sadly increasing numbers of people who no longer bother to listen, the practice has converted to talking past the next person.

For the results-driven businessperson, listening will feel counterintuitive and will be difficult to do, but it is absolutely vital. Failure to observe this simple rule can result in failure of the answer, the presentation, the meeting, or the entire business proposition.

When you are asked a question, follow the advice of the old adage frequently attributed to Epictetus, a first-century Roman philosopher, “We have two ears and one mouth, and we should use them in that proportion.”

The full solution is called Active Listening, a subject that brings up more than five hundred million results in a search. Unfortunately, most of those results include an interpretive function, such as clarifying or adjusting on the part of the listener. 

That is simply too much activity which actually impedes listening. Listening means listening and nothing else. Take a lesson from Joe Hyams’ book, Zen in the Martial Arts. Hyams tells the story of a Zen Master who explained Zen to a university professor by suggesting that they have tea.

The master poured his visitor’s cup full and then kept pouring.

The professor watched the cup overflowing until he could no longer restrain himself. “The cup is overfull, no more will go in!

“Like this cup,” the master said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

Empty your mind. Do not interpret, clarify, or adjust and, especially, do not think of the answer.. Just listen. The essence of Active Listening can be summed up in one sentence: When you are being asked a question, use the powers of your mind to focus on the essence of the question, not on the answer.


This blog is an excerpt from my book Presentations in Action published by Pearson. Also check out my newly released Presentation Trilogy—Presenting to Win, The Power Presenter, and In the Line of Fireavailable on Amazon and other retailers.