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How to Answer the Question You Can’t Answer

Tough Questions: How to Answer the Question You Can’t Answer (With Video)

by | Apr 26, 2019 | By Karin Hurt, Communication, Winning Well |

6 Ways to Respond to the Really Tough Questions

Does this happen to you? You diligently prepare for an important meeting. You cover all your bases.  And then here it comes, the really tough question you can’t answer.

What you say next matters—a lot. It’s tragic to see smart, well-intentioned leaders flounder with a weak answer to a tough question.

Don’t lose credibility by guessing with confidence (e.g. making stuff up and acting like it’s true), talking in circles around the issue (without saying anything of substance), or answering the question they can’t answer with a question, hoping to deflect and distract.

The next time you get a question you can’t answer, try these credibility-enhancing techniques.

6 Simple Ways to Answer the Tough Question You Can’t Answer

1.Tell The Truth.

When you hear a tough question you can’t answer, never, ever make stuff up. Forget the spin. Ditch the diaper genie. Say what you don’t know and offer to get back to them AFTER you’ve done your homework.  If you can’t disclose everything, explain why.

If you’ve had to change directions or change your mind, explain why.

Your vulnerability and authenticity will build trust and connection.

2. Anticipate and Prepare.Winning Well leadership development

Want to get good at tough questions you can’t answer? Make them less tough.

Anticipate questions you’ll be asked and put them into categories. Do your homework and get smarter.

Dry run your presentation with a few friendlies and ask for their toughest questions. Pre-empt a few tough questions by saying, “Now, if I were you I would be wondering…” Instant credibility win.

3. Pause.

That awkward feeling you have when you hear a tough question you can’t answer, is likely more about you, than them. The silence that feels like thirty-seven minutes is probably more like thirty-seven seconds.  It’s far better to have a moment of pause with a good answer than a quick moment of stupidity.

4. Repeat the Question.

Sometimes questions feel tough because they’re long, convoluted, or unclear. Summarize the question back in the simplest terms. It will show you are listening, you’ve got them, and give you a moment to prepare.

5. Don’t Repeat Yourself.

Every now and then, people use tough questions as traps. Just say, “I believe I answered that before” with a quick summary response.

You can also offer to talk to that person after the meeting to have a deeper dialogue.

6. Keep Your Cool.

Don’t get riled up. Take the high road and keep your cool. Your best answer will never be given from the Amygdala brain. Breathe.

As communication expert Hilary Blair explains, it’s time to own the awkward. You can watch a short excerpt of this Asking for a Friend interview below, or watch the entire popular episode here.

When you role model a prepared, calm, and honest approach to tough questions, your team learns it’s okay to not know. And gets better at working on answers together.

Your turn.

What’s your best advice when answering a tough question you really can’t answer?

2022 Update: See Also Courageous Questions: How to Make it Easier to Get Better Insights

Karin Hurt

Karin Hurt helps human-centered leaders find clarity in uncertainty, drive innovation, and achieve breakthrough results.  She’s the founder and CEO of Let’s Grow Leaders, an international leadership development and training firm known for practical tools and leadership development programs that stick. She’s the award-winning author of four books including Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates and Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results-Without Losing Your Soul and a hosts the popular Asking For a Friend Vlog on LinkedIn. A former Verizon Wireless executive, Karin was named to Inc. Magazine’s list of great leadership speakers. Karin and her husband and business partner, David Dye, are committed to their philanthropic initiative, Winning Wells – building clean water wells for the people of Cambodia.

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