Curveball Questions

Do you know that time during a meeting, workshop, interview, or other interaction when a question comes up that catches you off guard and/or disrupts the flow, causes a hot flash, and momentarily stops the storytelling rhythm and flow? Yeah, the classic gotcha, curveball, trick, rhetorical question. I used to hate this; it was a tactic of the antagonist, skeptic, or someone who loves being that person.

In my experience, I learned from every one of those folks. While there will always be a gotcha I couldn’t anticipate, I have dunked on those who come with curveballs repeatedly with a handful of techniques to dodge and parry these people and their curveballs smoothly.

Aren’t these just devil’s advocate questions, just a check and balance on your story? Aren’t you just being defensive against ‘tough’ questions? Are you just afraid of other points of view or how others see the same thing differently? Why is it a problem to keep people on their toes?

These questions, like the curveball, gotchas, trick, or alt agenda, are the tools of passive aggressives, ignorants, clout chasers, preeners, peacocks, prosecutorialists, pessimistas, negative scanners, and generally unhappy, disaffected semi-adults. So, I have developed an acceptance of what is with these humans rather than a resistance. These humans come with every pitch, presentation, workshop readout, deliverable collab, and whiteboard. I am for sure here for them. Because when you give voice to that feeling in your gut, the butterflies, nervous anxiety, all the gotchas lose their power to disrupt.

You have heard or read about my strategic benign neglect already. See my other post on that.

Process and progressions

  1. CB comes in, does not react, breathe, nice deep breath, no sighs.
  2. Acknowledge the question. Even repeat it.
  3. Intentional silence, let it marinate in your brain case for a full minute.
  4. If you have murder boarded this question or topic. Begin the breakdown. (more on murder boarding in another post)
  5. Do any of the following, as your results will vary.
    • Table and defer—My teammates do this often; it enables folks to be heard without the classic disruption bias. All questions are not curveballs. Most are on-topic, relevant, timely, additive, and insightful. Also, no one should take this personally; it’s just storytelling, and no one gets hurt. I have had so many run-ins with the Curveballers that I should get a T-shirt.
    • Build on, Move on—This is another simple one: if possible, build on the question intent and move along. If not, see below.
    • Parking lot — As appropriate, place the CB on paper, stick it on the wall, or write it in your notes. Then deal with it at a parking lot or Magic Wand time; in this way, you still maintain story flow and don’t allow disruptive, irrelevant-ness mishegoss to invade. You would be amazed when you debrief with the curveballers and gotchathletes, what was their motivation, mindset, or expected utility of their rock throwing. Surprise, indirect resistance, passive aggressiveness, fear, uncertainty (anxiety * powerlessness), and doubt. And more often than not, it was unrelated to the storytelling or purpose of the interaction.
    • Characterize and Categorize—Restate the question to characterize its context and category; place it so you can effectively and gently turn gotchas and curveballs into additives or inputs to your story rather than rabbit holes and tangents/adjacents you don’t care about for the topic(s) at hand. This may loop in the room a few times; be aware.
    • Disambiguate and Redirect—This is a relatively obvious retort: Ask why the question is asked, the question behind the question, and redirect on responses.
    • Complete Disassembly of the Question—If you have the preparation and the context, nature, and substance to disassemble a curveball question completely, do it. This one is the most challenging and deliberate technique. Unpacking someone’s gotcha thoroughly is both satisfying and a learning moment for those who wish to throw. My struggles with gotchas and curveballs forced me into a learning posture that sometimes makes this last technique a bit of a break-the-glass moment. Folks get upset when complete disassembly occurs.

Final thought

You may or may not agree with my story here, or it is controversial. You may also be a gotchathlete with many curveballs and take some pride or pleasure in being that person. Always keep this in the back of your mind, someone is prepping or overprepping to deliver something of value, a point of view, a deliverable, a pitch some insights. Time is a finite, perishable thing. Humans take risks to tell stories and even be vulnerable to audiences. It’s like hecklers with comedians; only most storytellers are NOT crowd-working comedians with comedic context and honed rhetorical skills.

As always, if you made it down here, thank you. #keepmoving