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How to respond to questions you don’t want to answer

In the age of social media, consumers are feeling empowered to ask more and more questions, which means that answering questions about farm practices has become another “to-do” on your already supercharged list.

Farmers not only play an important role in the food conversation, they can be said to have a duty to participate in those conversations. When consumers are inundated by mountains of biased or incorrect information, these farmer-consumer interactions help consumers make informed decisions and show that farmers have nothing to hide.

It’s true that not all questions are based on legitimate information, and they are not always polite. But how you answer them, online and off, could set the tone for more constructive dialogue in the future.

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Here are a few tips to help you spur the exchange of ideas and build trust while maintaining your composure in the face of nonsensical, repetitive, or difficult questions:

  • Make sure you understand the question: You can’t adequately answer a question you don’t understand. To demonstrate your comprehension, reframe the asker’s question. For example, “So, what you’re saying is… ” and include parts of their question in your response.
  • Answer part of the question: Addressing only a segment of their question — the part you want to focus on — may be enough to satisfy the questioner.
  • Consider postponing: A tried-and-true media interview training tip is to say that you appreciate the valid question, but that you don’t necessarily have all the information currently on hand to answer it sufficiently or effectively. Tell them that since you value their input, you will get back to them within (time frame) and ask for their contact information. Follow up!
  • Bridge: Another media interview trick is bridging. This is where you divert attention away from a “sticky” question towards one of your key messages. For example, you could say, “Well, that’s not quite right. Actually/The fact is…” or “What I think you really want to know is…” This helps move the conversation from incorrect information or negative concepts towards the facts and the important messages you want to share.
  • Take your time: You can take a cue from politicians here: if you’re not quite sure how to respond to a difficult question, buy yourself some time by repeating or rephrasing it. Those few critical seconds will allow your brain to register the question and access the most relevant information filed away in your Brain Repository.
  • Watch your body language: The way you hold your body is critical to how you’re perceived. While it can be difficult when under fire to remain aware of how you’re using various body parts (Are you wagging your finger? Are you defensively crossing your arms? Are you avoiding eye contact?), remember that as soon as you do anything that could be perceived as defensive, it sets off the fight-or-flight response in the other person, making them defensive in turn. Neutral body language sends the message that you have nothing to hide and that you look forward to engaging in a dialogue with them.
  • Watch your tone: While it can be very tempting to answer what you perceive as a ridiculous question with a curt “yes” or “no,” you should always use the opportunity to include facts, key messages, and valid sources from which they can learn more.
  • Give the questioner some control over the conversation: This is a good tactic to use when someone is a little hot under the collar. By saying, “I understand how that can make you feel frustrated. Would it be helpful if I shared some information about that with you?” the questioner is offered a degree of control over the conversation and should (!) calm down.
  • Beware of negative questions: You never want to repeat any of the questioner’s negative language in your answers since it will only reinforce those concepts.
  • Be as coherent as possible: Offering coherence (i.e. understandability) enables you to create “ah-ha!” moments for your listeners. Make sure your answers are simple, concise, and free of industry jargon.

To educate your listener while simultaneously helping them feel respected and heard, your answers should engage and resonate in such a way that they spark curiosity and build trust, with the ultimate goal of initiating more meaningful exchanges.

April Stewart is a sixth-generation dairy farmer in Quebec, president of Canadian Young Speakers for Agriculture, and principal of Alba PR, whose latest project is The Farmer’s Survival Guide.

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