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.