Disclaimer: This article is intended to be an aide to regular civilian interaction. It is not legal advice.
Combative interviews are birthed when someone is out to prove a point with a series of agenda-driven, prying questions. We often have a general sense of when someone’s out to “get us” by asking us leading questions which seek to get us into trouble or submission. The reasons for their combative inquiry can vary widely. However, there are patterns which can be observed and general rules followed whilst interacting with people who have a malicious agenda driving the questions that they ask.
This article aims to present overarching points to remember whilst dealing with the specifics being brought up by a combative interviewer in your daily happenings. This article is for people who have a desire to take command over those who attempt to overpower them with seemingly hard-hitting, prying questions.
Shatter the Lead-Up, Get Right to the Meat and Potatoes
Questions which are driven by an agenda are generally easy to read. We’re generally tuned into others’ attempts to poke at a sensitive topic of ours with lead-up questions.
For instance, picture that last year, you wrecked your car by driving it into a pole whilst making a right hand turn. A person who seeks to make attempts to demean your joyous event of buying a new replacement car, will attempt to hint back at last year’s accident whilst asking questions about the new car in question. They may ask questions such as, “Have you gotten a feel for how fast you can corner with this car?” Or more others like, “How is the handling? Does it feel in control around tight corners?”
If interrogated outright, the person asking the questions above would deny attempting to bring back memories of your crash from last year. Combative people will attempt to hint at sensitive topics of yours with questions which hint and subtly jab at those topics. Since the crash you had last year may have been painful, embarrassing, and generally seen as a “loss” from your perspective, others hinting back at that event can be motivated by malicious tendencies to infect you with a feeling of that loss during a joyous occasion. If you play their game and answer each one of their lead-up questions honestly, they will may continue becoming more and more malicious, depending on how far the person asking questions wants to take it.
An effective way to disrupt people who attempt to lead conversations, or feelings, toward sensitive topics – and to regain control of the back-and-forth – is to skip the lead-up and get right to the meat and potatoes. By addressing what they hint at with their questions head on, you’d serve to put a stop to any further questions on the matter. They will no longer feel as though they’re getting closer in cornering you and forcing you to speak about the specifics of your sensitivities. Rather, by being outright with them, and addressing the sensitive topic early on in the lead-up process, you communicate the notion that you’ve read and anticipated what they were trying to do.
In the car example above, there would come a point when you figure out someone’s attempt in subtly leading the conversation, or your frame of mind, toward the negative consequences of driving your previous car into a pole. Once you recognize that point in the conversation, you would be able to take command of the interaction by skipping right ahead and addressing the crash explicitly. An effective thing to say would be, “Yes, I pushed this new car pretty hard in every corner already. Don’t worry, all I’m thinking about while driving, is not running into a pole a second time. Imagine how embarrassing that’ll be?”
Their rebuttal to this response of yours would likely be a giggle paired with some form of agreement on their part. However, by explicitly addressing the elephant in the room, and leaving it for dead, you’d serve to take command of the conversation and communicate that you’ve effectively read their attempt at poking at a sensitive topic. You would further communicate that the subject matter they perceived to be painful (by being subtle about their attempts) is actually painless in your perception.
Ask the Unasked Questions
You can also ask the questions that lead to the meat and potatoes of the conversation yourself, rather than presenting the main course outright as mentioned above. The difference between getting right to the final, painful, answer quickly and owning the questions that get you there, is that the latter serves to further disarm the interviewer in the situation, not just silence them. In essence, it is a more authoritative attempt at gaining power over those who sneakily attempt to pry open the boxes of sensitive internal dialogue.
Begin your dialogue with, “You may be thinking…” or “Your next question is probably…” in order to regain control of a conversation in which there is a malicious line of questioning coming your way. Correctly aligning yourself with the succeeding questions that someone has in store, serves to disarm what they perceive to be their weapons. It will show them that their weapons can’t hurt you, and that you’ve decided to use those weapons on yourself in an effort to show how ineffective they are.
Think about how you would attack yourself during conversations within which you notice others throwing their best jabs, digs, and malicious ploys. Dig down to what would be the most painful questions someone can ask at that particular moment in time, and consider bringing that general question up before they do, even if they haven’t yet thought to ask it.
For instance, if you’re habitually late to class or work, you can safely guess that the person of authority (professor, boss) will not be pleased when you come in late for the third day in a row. They’ll perhaps begin the conversation by asking why you were late this time, and their line of questioning is likely to contain the fact that this was your third day being late. The first effective thing to do would be to apologize quickly for being late (answer their first question). Next, you’d gain by cutting them off prior to them asking their succeeding question by mentioning this being your third day being late yourself. In doing so, you’d serve to disrupt their plans for questioning you and would maintain control of the conversation. They’d be likelier to back down knowing that you understand where they’re coming from.
Do Whatever You Can to Place the Interviewer in Your Position
You may be exposed to a line of questioning which continues on past the lead-up and your attempts at getting right to the meat of things. People who attempt to control the narrative in malicious ways may continue past your attempts at diffusing their line of questioning with the premature honest ownership mentioned above.
If the person asking you combative questions continues on, placing them in your position for even just a moment, can do well in regaining control of the situation. Ask them what they would have done in the situation about which they’re questioning you about. Ask them if they’ve ever done or said something similar to what they have a problem with you doing or saying. Tell them to be honest in their answers of the situation. As you answer their combative questions, make attempts at enticing them to think from your perspective for just a moment. Demand details when you notice them making assumptions and generalizing statements as they attempt to place themselves in your shoes.
Slowly make your way to regaining control of the situation you’re in by attempting to switch roles in the interaction that you find yourself in. An interviewer, no matter how intimidating, who becomes the interviewee for even a sliver of a moment, will be perceived as having lost some control of the interview. If the context is one of combative notions, then the slightest dips in control and power by the interviewer are important wins in your book.
If for example, your manager has an issue with you completing work too slowly, walk them through your work processes as they ask you questions in an effort to incriminate you of being a slow worker. As you go on answering to their inquiry, squeeze in questions of your own such as, “Would you have done the same at this juncture?” Ask them for details of how they would do something differently than you have done in your attempts at producing quality pieces of work. In doing so, you’ll do well in communicating the complexities of a situation that they may be blind to. You’d allow them to notice that there may not be an obvious answer to the issue that they’re trying to solve, and perhaps they’ve entered the conversation with an ignorant perspective.
Continuously ask for personal input from those who attempt to question you into trouble, pain, or submission. Though some will simply refuse to answer your own refuting questions, the majority seem to be open to partaking in the conversation at hand. Especially if they don’t hold an overwhelming position of authority over you, attaining their input on the very thing they’re questioning you on can do well in limiting the damage caused by their line of questioning.
Do Not Move On Until You’re Ready
The last thing to remember, is to never move on from providing a complete answer until you’re ready. A common tactic of those who seek to interrogate you will be to move on quickly from question to question, and attach themselves to certain things that you say during an answer to the previous question prior to you completing your thought. Take command of the pace of the interview. As the person answering combative questions, you have power in directing the pace of the interview in question.
State that you’re not done answering someone’s previous question if they move too fast. Tell them that they’ve moved on prior to getting a full answer from you, and that they don’t seem to care for hearing the answer as much as they care about making you feel uncomfortable. Take your time in answering their questions, and only move on when you’re ready to. In gaining control of the pace of the combative interview at hand, you’d be playing ball on your own court. You’d have the advantage of taking as much, or as little time, to answer the questions that are posed.
Remember, control and authority are focus points in malicious inquiry from others. Control and authority doesn’t always need to look like aggression and overpowering social tactics. Taking control can, and should, be done subtly and calmly. Above all else, ensure that you remain calm throughout it all. For you to be effective in your attempt to gain control of a particular situation at hand, your mind should be clear enough to observe patterns, and take the proper steps in response to those observations.