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How to Answer Those Way Too Personal Questions

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What should you do when the question is too personal?

"What kind of underwear do you wear?" Jerry Seinfeld asks Larry David, his friend and co-creator of the TV show, "Seinfeld."

You expect Larry David to answer—he and Seinfeld are goofing around.

"Briefs," says Larry David. "I couldn't make the transition."

But when President Bill Clinton was asked the same question, "boxers or briefs?" back in 1994, you expect him to decline. Unfortunately, he responds.

The 17 year old girl who asked Clinton, at an MTV town hall, said, "All the world's dying to know."

But the world wasn't dying to know; most of the world didn't even want to think about it.

Presidential candidate Mitt Romney was asked what he wears to bed. "As little as possible," he said.

Most of the world didn't want to know that either.

Why do leaders answer these questions?

Well, to appear approachable, or likeable, or real.

The message of the Clinton presidency, wrote columnist Bob Greene, was that, "The president is just a guy. There's no distance between the president and the people."

But a leader needs distance. It's hard to imagine a U.S president before Clinton talking about underwear. Now, these questions are routine.

I usually advise business leaders to welcome questions, to step into them—literally, take a step forward—and to stay loose and relaxed.

But when the question is inappropriate, do the opposite: hold back, even step back.

You can be light, but firm. "Thanks for that intriguing question," you might say. Then smile, and say (in a friendly tone of voice), "I'm not going anywhere near that one."

Or, even simpler: "Thanks. Next question."

The other day, Jerry Seinfeld was interviewed on radio. "How many Porsches do you own?" he was asked.

Seinfeld has a sizable collection, but he refused to answer.

He told the interviewer, basically, "You're a man of stature and reputation, and I hold you to a higher standard than that question."

Good answer.

Tip: When asked a question, you've got options. One is to decline.

Consultant, author, speaker, and founder of express potential® (www.expresspotential.com), Paul Hellman has worked with CEOs, executives, and managers at leading companies for over 25 years to improve performance and productivity at work. His latest book is “Naked at Work: How to Stay Sane When Your Job Drives You Crazy,” and his columns have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post and other leading papers.

Comments? Send them to executivecareers@cnbc.com

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