How to Answer the Question You Can't Answer

How to Answer the Question You Can’t Answer

Does this happen to you? You diligently prepare for an important meeting. You cover all your bases.  And then here it comes, the 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 Question You Can’t Answer

  1. Tell The Truth.  Never, ever make stuff up. Forget the spin. 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.
  2. Anticipate and Prepare. Want to get good at tough questions? 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 is likely your issue, not theirs. 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.
  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.

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.

6 Simple Ways to Answer Tough Questions

Joe’s a bright guy and his idea was solid. His data seemed right intuitively, but we had a few questions.

My peer started with a softball. Joe responded with a stutter, swing, and a miss. He made the cardinal sin of answering tough questions– he made stuff up.

He wasn’t exactly sure of the answer, and he took a chance that we were dumber than he was on the topic. Never underestimate your audience. Nothing fires up execs more than a big load of crap.

No more softballs, now the tough fast balls were flying. I sensed he knew the answers, but was flustered and taken off guard. He couldn’t make the right data synch with the first baloney. I ended the meeting early out of a mixed sentiment of disappointment, anger, and pity. It took a while to recover.  In fact for Joe, that story’s not over.

If you’re taking risks and proposing game-changing ideas, you’re going to get asked tough questions.

If you change the world enough to attract the media, you’re going to get asked tough questions.

If you’re leading through turbulent times, you’re going to get asked tough questions.

If you’re doing work that matters, you’re going to get asked tough questions.

How will you respond?

6 Simple Ways to Answer Tough Questions

    1. Tell The Truth.  Never, ever make stuff up. Forget the spin. If you don’t know, say so, and offer to get right back to them.  If you can’t disclose everything say so, or explain that part of the strategy is still evolving.
    2. Anticipate and Prepare. The very best way to answer tough questions is to make them less tough. Anticipate the questions you will be asked and put them into categories. Do your homework and get as smart as you can on the topics you will most likely be asked. Dry run your presentation with a few friendlies and ask for their toughest questions. Pre-empt a few of these tough questions by saying, “Now, if I were you I would be wondering…” Instant credibility win.
    3. Pause. The silence that feels awkward to you goes more quickly for them. Your audience will just sense that you’re listening well. Better to have a moment of pause with a good answer, than a quick moment of stupidity.
    4. Repeat the Question. Sometimes the questions are tough because they’re long, convoluted or unclear. Try to 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. Sometimes tough questioners are setting a trap. Just say, “I believe I answered that before” with a quick summary response.
    6. Keep Your Cool. Some tough questions are really needling questions to get you riled up. Take the high road and keep your cool. Your best answer will never be given from the Amygdala brain. Breathe.

Telling the truth and answering the tough questions will go a long way in building your reputation as a confident, humble and trusted leader.

Web Bonus Post

I had some fun this week answering one of my most frequently asked questions:  How do I convince my boss I’m ready for a promotion? as part of a guest post carnival sponsored by WebHosting Buzz

7 Steps to Convince Your Boss To Promote You