Paul Rovey, a dairy farmer from Arizona knows first-hand how important telling your story to consumers is. Rovey’s dairy is surrounded by urban development in Glendale, Ariz. “We work very hard to communicate with our neighbors and tell our story,” Rovey told attendees at World Dairy Expo this week.

But in addition to telling your story, one has to be able to handle the difficult questions that come along with it. The phrase, “the best defense is good offense” holds true for handling difficult questions. There are techniques to handling difficult questions with finesse. People will remember how you handled a difficult situation even more than what you said.

Dairy Management Inc., offers these tips to handle difficult questions you may encounter:

1. Be a strong listener. In a situation where there are conflicting opinions, it’s easy to ignore what the other person is saying. Ten seconds into a conversation you may want to focus on one sentence that affects you. Sometimes you begin forming your reply, while ignoring everything else being said. By immediately defending your position, you send the signal that you’ve stopped listening. Once that happens, you automatically set the tone for the conversation that indicates, “I’m right and you are wrong.”

    Next time, try listening before responding – no matter how many hairs may be standing up on the back of your neck! Listening bridges the gap between you and the speaker.

    2. Ask questions. By asking to learn more from the speaker, you demonstrate an interest in their thoughts and show you are trying to understand the basis of their assumptions or attitudes. Instead of immediately defending yourself, ask questions, such as, “Help me understand how you came to form you opinion? Have you ever had this experience before? Did someone else tell you this information?”

      At first, it may be difficult to refrain from playing defense. By listening and asking questions, however you gain knowledge that helps in addressing your opponent’s concerns and advancing your position. At the same time, you show courtesy, reinforce confidence and gain respect and trust.

      3. Make sure you heard what they said. Repeat what you hear in your own words. For example, “I think what you are asking is, do I care about my animals?” You should see or hear an affirmation or clarification, then proceed with your answer. Especially when diverse opinions are offered, it is easy to completely miss the point being made. Repeating or restating their concern in your own words lets the speaker know you are listening.

      4. Find common ground. Often listening is reduced to hearing only those differing opinions. It is possible to be engaged in a heated discussion and still have something in common. Starting a sentence with “I know we can both agree that we have a passion for caring for animals…” diffuses the situation and leads to finding a logical conclusion. Focusing solely on your differences never advances the situation. Finding common ground may not change an opinion, but it is the first step toward being heard. Furthermore, it can lead to more dialogues and, eventually, problem-solving.

      5. State your principles. One way to connect is to state your beliefs or principles. Your principles tell a story. If someone is questioning your commitment or practices ask, “May I share with you my beliefs?” When they say “yes,” continue with stating your case: “I believe that caring for animals is my top priority. Second, I…”

        Another example is: “What I hear you asking is, ‘do I care’? I spend every day caring for animals.”

        6. Break the rhythm. It’s important to break the rhythm of an adversarial questioner when you realize they are asking increasingly volatile questions. You can do this by beginning your response with “Let’s step back and look at the bigger picture.” This diffuses a threatening style and takes the emotional edge off a heated exchange.

        7. Bring up the subject of concern. By being proactive, you can control the tone and exhibit the transparency regarding the topic. The fact that you brought it up prior to the questioner diffuses the subject matter. Transparency increases trust.