Take the 2-minute tour ×
Programmers Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for professional programmers interested in conceptual questions about software development. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Depending on the project I'm working on, I may be required to attend more meetings with both internal stakeholders or technical management in client companies.

During the course of these meetings, there will inevitably be a few questions crop up that either:

  • You do not have an answer to.
  • You have not thought about for one reason or another.
  • You deem to be irrelevant or completely out of scope of the current meeting.

In each case, how do you answer these questions? Any tips or tricks on remaining authoritative while remaining honest?

share|improve this question

closed as off topic by gnat, Yannis Rizos, Jalayn, Jim G., Kate Gregory Jan 25 '12 at 13:58

Questions on Programmers Stack Exchange are expected to relate to software development within the scope defined by the community. Consider editing the question or leaving comments for improvement if you believe the question can be reworded to fit within the scope. Read more about reopening questions here.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

add comment

6 Answers

up vote 17 down vote accepted

a) I will find out what the answer to this is from the person responsible for that area of the project and get back to you within the next two days

b) This is a good point, thank you for raising it. I have not thought about this aspect but will do and get back to you within the next two days

c) What do you actually mean about this as it does not seem to fit with my understanding of the project.

Sure, just examples but if you read the meaning behind those they are all about managing their expectations and making them feel part of the process. Also known as being assertive.

share|improve this answer
add comment

I haven't seen this mentioned, but the worst thing you can do is to try to BS them. It's always fair to respond:

a) you do not know the answer to
Response: "Don't know, but I will find out"

b) you have not thought about for one reason or another
Response: "The subject never came up. I'll do some research and get back to you"

c) you deem to be irrelevant or completely out of scope of the current meeting
Response: "We should discuss this in another meeting"

share|improve this answer
add comment
  • Never improvise or make up facts you don't know or aren't adequately prepared to give. Questions you can't answer, ask to come back after you've checked it out.
  • If something is out of scope for the current discussion, say so and suggest you can discuss this with that person after the meeting
  • Always invite people to send questions before the meeting, giving you opportunity to prepare answers. If you are organizing the meeting, make sure you have an agenda that you send out beforehand (can be just a few lines, as long as it outlines what the meeting is about).
  • If you are not organizing the meeting, ask the organizer to provide you with an agenda unless one is posted.

In my experience, one of the most common causes of out-of-scope discussions or questions you are not prepared for are agenda-less meetings. Always demand a meeting have a clear agenda. If the meeting is supposed to render a decision on something, that should be clearly indicated in the agenda, and it should be reflected (and acknowledged) in minutes or notes sent out after the meeting.

If people insist on calling for meetings without an agenda, bring this up with them and suggest that it would be much more efficient with one. If that doesn't work, bring it up with your boss with the motivation that your time is being inefficiently wasted. If you feel you can get away with it (without getting a lot of bad will), feel free to start declining agenda-less meetings outright. I've had to resort to this a few times when things got too out of hand.

share|improve this answer
add comment

The above suggestions are definitely great ones, and work well in most contexts. Like the other responders indicated this is bound to happen - especially if you are presenting ideas to smart people and looking for their critique or feedback (for example, trying to raise funding for a start-up).

However you respond you want to achieve a few things:

  • Retain creditability and authority for your topic/clients (this also means not fabricating or making up things you truly don't know aren't sure about)
  • Acknowledge their response (so they feel heard and understood)
  • Keep the presentation/meeting on track

While the suggestions are definitely helpful, a great design pattern to this questions works as follows:

  1. Restate the question and make sure you understand what they are asking and why (since sometimes this isn't obvious, and you want to make sure you address their root cause). For example "Why are you using [insert technology here] instead of [insert a technology here that you may not have looked at]?" with this question it would be good to follow up with a question (or series of questions) on why they asked it and if they had experience with different technologies, or relationships with the vendors, etc. Make sure you understand what they are getting at and why (since they may be really experienced with something, or just heard of it off the cuff, etc - and you need to treat each situation differently).
  2. Acknowledge the "asker" and question non-confrontational way - i.e. "That is a great question...." or "That is an interesting perspective....."
  3. Identify how to you plan to follow up "...let me get back to you on that in email" (a) or "...that is definitely a topic for further consideration, but let's table it for now and perhaps you and I can discuss about it offline." (b) or "...that is a good point, but since of the goal of the meeting is {insert here}, let's move on right now but we can come back to this if time allows."

Generally understanding "why" they are asking something, will help you select the best follow up, and make sure that they feel heard and understood.

share|improve this answer
add comment

This happens to everyone from time to time, no matter how experienced or prepared. Honesty is the best policy in these situations, which means acknowledging you don't have the answers. You'll be a lot more credible in the long run than if you try to bluff your way through it.

Specific questions:

(a) If you don't know the answer, instead of just shrugging your shoulders, the important thing is to assure people you understand what they're asking and that you can go away and find out. You may want to provide a timeline and some idea of the work involved if it's likely to require heavy lifting.

(b) If you haven't though about it, again, it's fine. Same as above, just let them know and get back to them.

(c) If you think the questions are irrelevant, you should generally speak up tactfully about why that's the case; it's quite possible they didn't realise it was irrelevant. If you're working with professionals, they'll accept it's irrelevant if you provide evidence/reasoning, and by checking with them, you might well discover it's relevant after all.

share|improve this answer
    
+1 for "you might well discover it's relevant after all". You might be missing something that other's are seeing. –  semaj Jan 24 '12 at 16:32
    
+1 agree with @semaj. I'd also add - in the background to work on the relationship & trust with people in the meeting as it will make the "i'll get back to you" response much more easily accepted. –  jasonk Jan 25 '12 at 5:51
add comment

You mentioned three types of questions:

a) you do not know the answer to: Tell them I don't know the answer, but that you will find out the answer. Then write down their question/concern and get back to them quickly.

b) you have not thought about for one reason or another: Tell them that is an interesting idea. Then write it down and followup quickly.

c) you deem to be irrelevant or completely out of scope of the current meeting: This answer is more complex. If it is irrelevant to the entire project, try to gently tell them it is not related. But do it carefully because you don't know why they are bringing it up. If it related to the project, but not related to the meeting; tell them you will pass it along to the right person. Then write it down, and followup quickly.

As you gain experience in the project, the embarrassment issues will go way. As you gain more experience on the job, you will be better at handling these types of questions.

share|improve this answer
add comment

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.