Answering Tough Questions

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As a leader at home or at work you need to prepare yourself to answer tough questions.

Tom Brokaw, the evening news anchor for 24 years on NBC, was asked what one thing he learned over the 24 years of reporting world news.  He said he learned that . . . it is not the questions that get you into trouble; it is the answers.  This is so true!

I remember early in my career going to a meeting with my Front-Line staff when I was running a busy restaurant.  At the first few meetings I was unprepared to answer their questions, and they were tough on me.  I am sure I lost credibility with them. One night I was watching the President of the United States conduct a press conference and was impressed with how well he answered all of the questions that the journalist threw at him.  I then learned more about how well the President anticipated the questions, prepared the answers, and practiced answering them before going on stage.  I learned that I must begin to do that too.  I learned that while everyone may not agree with your answer, you get points and credit for having a point of view that you can explain.

All of you need to think about the important subjects at workplace . . . and develop a point of view on those topics . . . so that you are ready any time a question comes at you, even if it comes at a time when you least expect it. 

  • Find out what your organizations point of view is on different issues and rehearse answering these questions in your own mind.
  • Read the paper, listen to the news, read Time or Newsweek, go to seminars, and think so that you have a point of view on a wide range of issues.
  • Know your values—like telling the truth—and follow those values when you answer questions.
  • Tell the truth to your teams.
  • If you don’t know the answer to a question, then just say, “I don’t know, and I will get back to you on that.”  Then make sure you do and get back to them quickly.
  • Don’t get mean or flustered when you are asked a question.  Remain cool, calm, and professional.  Remember that if you get a reputation for putting people down or abusing your position of authority, that will be the beginning of the end for you . . . and people will never level with you again.  They will begin to handle you, and you will soon not have a clue what is going on.
  • Don’t worry about whether people agree with you or not.  Just be able to justify your answer. You can be sure that someone will always not agree with your point of view, especially when it does not line up with his or her point of view.
  • “Think” before you meet with someone or a group to anticipate what they might ask you.  Sometimes your answer will be that you will just have to agree to disagree.
  • Treat the person asking you the question as your equal.  Don’t abuse your position.  Tell them that you appreciate their courage in asking that tough question and that you will do your best to answer it.
  • And last but not least, think about what the right answer is, as there are many answers to the same question. 

 As I told you a day or two ago, my grandson Jullian asked me the following question:  “Papi, am I a Democrat or a Republican?”  I was tempted to abuse my leadership position.  I was tempted to tell him what I was and what I thought he should be.  I did not do this.  I did not want to pollute his young mind.  I told him that he was neither . . . that he was still learning . . . that when he grew up he would decide what he believed in and whether he was a Democrat, a Republican, an Independent, or by then there may be another party that he believes in.  Remember that it is not the question that gets you into trouble.  It is the answers.  Be prepared! Your children and your associates will be throwing tough questions at you from time to time. Anticipate what they might be and prepare yourself to answer them.


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