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When a Tough Question Puts You on the Spot

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Amid the uncertainty of the economy and the world around us, managing difficult questions is an ongoing part of a leader’s job. In this piece, the author outlines strategies to answer the tough questions so you can maintain the trust of your clients and colleagues, maintain your relationships, and weather any storm.

We have all experienced that moment when someone asks us a question and we are caught off guard. Perhaps a direct report raised a challenging question about layoffs during a town hall meeting, or a client called you out of the blue and wanted to know what was going on with those layoffs. market. How do you maintain relationships – and confidence — if you don’t have the answers people are looking for?

I was introduced to this topic in an unforgiving way. Early in my career, I served as the director of public diplomacy for the Consulate General of Israel in New England. As an American citizen, I was responsible for explaining the policy of a foreign government at a time of extreme violence in the Middle East. One of the hardest parts of my job is fielding angry questions from both sides of the conflict, such as: Why does the government take such harsh actions, or why didn’t the government take more drastic action?

What I learned in that job became the basis of my approach to handling difficult questions. You can use these strategies whether you are an investment banker talking to the CEO of a billion dollar company, an airport gate agent reassuring anxious passengers, or an owner of small business field questions from your team.

How to Handle Difficult Questions

1. Prepare in advance.

You can always expect a lot of difficult questions that you will face. Before a meeting with everyone, look at the agenda and identify what questions may come up. Invite some partners to role-play: Have them ask you challenging questions and work on answers that feel comfortable and authentic to you. Put yourself in your audience’s shoes and ask yourself how they will feel in response to the answers.

You can do the same thing when preparing for difficult questions from clients. Think about who in your organization really has the pulse of your clients and can ask you the toughest questions to simulate a client conversation. This is an effective activity for anyone on your team who has questions. The answers do not need to be memorized, but you should remember them as a result of your practice.

2. Stop and breathe.

Whenever we pose difficult questions, we often feel the need to jump right in to answer. However, without complete information, we always drop it filler words (though they really help in some situations), ramble, and double-back what we said. with clarity is one of the key ways in which we build trust, fumbling destroys credibility.

Before you answer, take a minute to stop and collect your thoughts. I recommend closing your mouth and breathing through your nose – which forces you to stop talking – or calmly drink the water you brought just for this purpose. This is a welcome break that gives you a few much-needed seconds to think about your response and make sure your emotions don’t control you.

3. Express empathy and honesty.

Words matter, especially in difficult situations. Begin by identifying the question with a transition phrase such as “That’s a critical question, thank you for asking,” and then use empathetic language, such as “If I were in your shoes, I would ask I have the same question.”

I stop people from saying “That’s a good question” because it’s a common pet peeve for our clients, and it usually means “I don’t know, and I need some time to finish it.” While those with media training have learned to pivot or bridge to avoid answering certain questions, be careful with the technique – your audience knows when you’re doing it. The more you use it, the more you undermine their trust. So, what can you do instead?

4. Recognize uncertainty.

If you have incomplete information, you can acknowledge the uncertainty and use phrases like “Here’s what we know at this point,” or, in more sensitive situations, use “What all I can say is this” to share what information you have.

You can confidently express uncertainty: Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know,” or “No one has the answer at this point, but here’s what we’re doing to answer it.” You can also confidently and objectively describe a situation. Give an unbiased overview by saying: “I want to step back and look at our conversation today. This is exactly the process we need to go through to understand all that perspectives and arrive at the best course of action.” And then use, “What else is on your mind?” to decisively move on to the next question.

When You Have To Stand Up

Sometimes acknowledging uncertainty is not enough, and you need to take a stand. You do it, not because you’re 100% sure it will work, but because you’re sure waiting to respond will cause irreparable damage.

If you need to stand in place, try using it Prep framework. This means:

  • Point: State a main point.
  • Reason: Give a reason behind it.
  • For example: Give an example that supports your point.
  • Point: Before you start rambling, restate your main point.

Here is an example of PREP in action.

questions: Why can’t we get extra end-of-year bonuses?

Identify with empathy: I know this is on everyone’s mind, and I appreciate you asking this question.

Point: We believe that bonuses should be tied to company performance.

rEASON: It is important that everyone can feel a sense of purchase without the pressure of it affecting their annual salary.

example: During the pandemic, our income dropped significantly, and we kept people’s salaries but did not pay bonuses. This year has been a challenging year for other reasons [insert one reason].

Point: And that’s why we can’t pay more bonuses at the end of the year.

As you can imagine, there is an incredible amount of nuance that goes into creating these answers. In fact, preparing for questions before a speech can take as much time as making the speech itself. However, this is a critical use of time.

. . .

Amidst the economic and global uncertainty that surrounds us, handling difficult questions will continue to be part of our roles as leaders. Use the strategies discussed above to maintain the trust of your clients and partners, maintain your relationships, and weather any storm.

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