If anyone knows about dealing with difficult questions these days, it’s surely UK Prime Minister Theresa May, as she attempts to rally her country around a compromise Brexit deal that no one wants.
What follows is a look at her recent dial-in interview with listeners on LBC radio. The exercise developed into a catalogue of ways to duck, dodge, or deflect awkward questions.
For those readers facing their own tricky Q&A sessions with journalists, analysts, employees or constituents, you may find it helpful to examine her use of four standard techniques recommended in such circumstances.
1. Pick out just one word in the question and run with that
One LBC listener dialed in to deliver a long and detailed statement to Mrs May about how she had failed to deliver on Brexit’s many promises. He closed with a direct question: why did she consider she should stay on as PM?
Mrs May didn’t even try to answer the question. But she did an excellent job of answering a different point under a diversionary smoke screen. Here’s how she achieved it:
- she enthusiastically thanked him for the question;
- she picked out just one word he had mentioned, “sovereignty”;
- she praised him for having raised such an important issue;
- she then riffed on the theme of sovereignty, using it to bridge to her key message that her agreement with the EU meant “decisions on things like who can come into this country would be taken by us here in the UK, and not by Brussels.”
Watch Theresa May select which aspect of the question to answer (1m26s)
- Shift the question from the specific to the generic
If you can’t answer a direct question, take things up a notch, from the specific to the more general. Mrs May fell back on this technique quite effectively when faced with a question about a leading Brexiteer still in her cabinet, Michael Gove.
“You can’t afford to lose him, can you?” asked the LBC interviewer, Nick Ferrari.
Mrs May stumbled for a second, then caught herself in time to answer not about Mr Gove but more generically about the cabinet as a whole: “Look, I want all of my colleagues in the cabinet to carry on doing the excellent job that they are doing,” she said.
Another way of shifting registers disarmingly is take the question down to a very personal level. Mrs May did this when asked about access to medicines in a post-Brexit Britain. Instead of answering whether there would be difficulties obtaining drugs, she showed that she really cared as much as or even more than the questioner. “I’m a type-1 diabetic, I rely on insulin every day. This is an issue that I feel personally – as it happens my insulin is produced by a company in the EU, Denmark, so I know this is an issue that’s a matter of importance to people,” she said
Watch Theresa May answer a specific question with a generic answer (11 seconds)
- Defuse the most difficult questions with a laugh
Any hint that you have been floored by a tough question can seriously weaken your position as the interview advances. So, if the question is really difficult, addressing it with a light laugh can help display your confidence. (Beware of this technique because in some cases it might make you look insensitive and really damage your reputation for being a caring person.)
During the LBC session, Mrs May was asked if she was aware of reports that her allies in the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party and its leader Arlene Foster would not support her Brexit deal.
Mrs May laughed it off – almost brightly – by saying: “I’m aware of lots of things that are written and rumoured, Nick.”
Watch Theresa May laugh off a difficult question about Arlene Foster here (47 seconds)
- Refuse the question on principle
Occasionally, you can just bluntly refuse to answer. However, if you do so, be careful to show that it is a matter of principle, not just stubbornness on your part. Security issues, personal privacy, or legal procedures are all frequently used this way to shut down a line of questioning.
Mrs May adopted the “principled” approach when she didn’t want to answer another question about Michael Gove’s future within her cabinet.
“Have you offered Michael Gove the position of Brexit secretary?” asked the interviewer.
“Now, I don’t talk about things to do with the cabinet reshuffle,” she replied primly, before kicking the question down the road by saying she would be appointing someone within the next couple of days.
Watch Theresa May refuse to answer a question on principle (13 seconds)
Charles Fleming, 26th November 2018
2 thoughts on “Theresa May’s many ways of dealing with difficult questions – an illustrated guide”
Thanks for this. Glad to see we have common interests. I’ll read more of your articles with interest. Give a shout if ever in Paris. Best, cf