Your ability to answer questions is just as important as your ability to share what you know. Skillfully answering questions can build your credibility, in turn making it easier to inform, persuade, and inspire others.
Questions come in one of two flavors:
(1) A request for more information
(2) A challenge/attack – personal or content-based
Within those two categories, there will be questions you know the answer to and others you don’t know the answer to, aren’t prepared to answer, or simply don’t want to answer.
When you know the answer to a question, you should state the direct answer first, followed by a brief explanation of your answer (if it needs it). Direct questions demand direct answers. But you’re not here to learn how to answer questions you know the answer to, so let’s look at 3 strategies for answering difficult questions.
Strategy #1: When you don’t know, say so.
Your professional reputation takes years to build, but it can crumble in an instant. One way to risk your reputation is to willingly answer questions you don’t know the answer to, under the guise of certainty. Trust is built on being truthful. If you don’t know the answer to a question, your answer is “I don’t know.” Here are some examples on how to do that:
- “I don’t know. I’ll need some time to think about it. Can I get back to you by the end of the day?”
- “This is something I haven’t given much thought to. It might be a good idea to reach out to ____ for an answer.”
- “My instincts tell me the answer is _____, but I can’t be sure.”
- “While I’m not totally sure, my initial thought is ____.”
Strategy #2: Identify and rephrase on the issue.
Sometimes we’re asked what I like to call ‘cornering questions.’ These questions are asked in a way that makes you feel cornered – usually in that the questioner gives you options to pick from, none of which fit the answer you’d like to give. Here’s an example…
“Did you make that comment because you’re angry or are you just that oblivious?”
Aside from the fact that this person should seriously reconsider their communication approach, they’ve cornered you with two bad options. Assuming you’re going to answer the question, how do you do so without choosing from the options provided? The first step is to identify the underlying issue in the question. In this example, if we remove the words ‘angry’ and ‘oblivious’, the underlying issue is that you made a comment. Once you identify the issue, you can put that issue back into a rhetorical question in order to set yourself up for an answer you’re prepared to give. Your response would be: “Why did I make that comment? Well, the way I see it, …..” This strategy works because you’re still answering on the issue, and you’re cooling down the temperature of the interaction in a professional manner.
Strategy #3: Communicate your boundaries.
Although it happens less often, there are times you’ll be asked a question you simply don’t want to answer. Maybe it’s too personal, it’s an attack on your character, or you’re not permitted to provide the information they’re asking for. Here’s how to handle each:
- “That’s not a question I feel comfortable answering.”
- “That’s a personal matter that I’ll be keeping private.”
- “That’s not a topic I’ll be answering questions on.”
- On social media: The most effective approach is to ignore the comment and not validate it with a response. If you must respond, you can make a request for a question: “Do you have a question you’d like to ask in regards to the content/situation?”
- In person: “I don’t respond to attacks on my character” or “Is there a question you’d like to ask about the content/situation?”
- In writing: Don’t respond until the emotion of the attack wears down. If you then choose to respond in writing, keep it short, professional, and invite further conversation in person or on the phone.
Not permitted to share information
- “Legally, I’m not allowed to disclose that information.”
- “That’s not something I have the authority to discuss right now.”
When you receive a difficult question, remember these three things:
1. Keep your cool if you want to keep your credibility.
2. Identify the issue within the question and address that.
3. The fuel for character attacks is attention. If you want them to stop, stop paying them attention.