From the executive level to the front-line manager level, leaders are confronted with tough questions often. These questions may sound like: Why can’t we hire more employees? Why don’t other departments have to do what we do? How do we have the budget for this but not that? Why are we hiring so soon after layoffs?

Tough questions arise from staff and employees, external stakeholders such as customers, families and the media – who all want to be informed. In addition, the number of tough questions we receive typically increases as we announce changes or decisions to relevant parties. Commonly leaders avoid answering tough questions directly. This results in using the we/they behavior we want to avoid.

Although we can’t eliminate tough questions altogether, we can communicate effectively and prepare to answer the questions that remain.


If we are being asked tough questions, it can be helpful to consider why we are being asked these types of questions. What is the root of the questions being asked? Could there be a lack of clarity in the message? A lack of specific feedback related to performance or expectations?

Change can be uncomfortable for many people and we often see change met with some degree of resistance. Neuroscience research asserts that this resistance is typically caused by fear. Fear of the unknown or uncertain conditions ahead. When we introduce change it is a natural human response to want to know how the change will affect us. People often start thinking about, what does this mean for me, how will I be affected?

Tough questions often arise from the resistance or fear of changes and concern from self. At times other factors make questions difficult to answer. The timing of the question or the audience itself may complicate the situation. The question itself may be around a detailed matter in which offering a simple explanation feels impossible. Reflect on the tough questions you have recently received. What made those questions difficult to answer?

After identifying the root of tough questions we can use that information to prepare us to answer tough questions in the future. Here are three tips to consider as you practice responding to tough questions effectively.


When we are communicating, our goal is to help the person we are connecting with understand what we are saying. People expect leaders to deliver clear effective messages that will leave them feeling inspired. At times, however, we communicate in ways that leave people feeling confused or concerned. To reduce confusion, and hopefully a few tough questions, we practice using key words at key times to connect the dots for people. When we use key words at key times our focus is on the audience. We plan our communication to start with why this information is important to the receiver. Our goal is to design a message that is clear and increases the listener’s confidence.

In addition to planning our messages well, we also want to anticipate the tough questions we may receive. If possible, ask the executive leadership team or another trusted source to help create a list of questions people may ask. Next, using key words at key times, draft how you would answer each question. Ideally, we want to incorporate some of these messages into the communication plan to increase understanding and therefore reduce the number of questions. For the information that can’t fit into the original message, take time to practice the answers you drafted.

Another way to prepare and anticipate tough questions is to develop a consistent approach for all leaders to use. As we plan to announce updates or changes connect with other leaders first. Work together to identify the tough questions people may ask and what response will be most appropriate. Lastly, we cascade this information to all leaders so we can answer tough questions in a consistent, aligned and accurate way.

Sometimes as senior leaders we represent the company to external audiences such as the media, stakeholders or customers. What is said to the public is never off the record and can’t be taken back. We recommend devoting plenty of time to prepare for a press conference or any other external speaking opportunities.


Whether we are about to answer a tough question, or one we find less difficult, it’s helpful to practice pausing before we begin. Take a deep breath in and let it out. We want to try to avoid reacting to a question and letting emotions dominate our conversation. Instead, our goal is to respond in a meaningful way. Occasionally that may even sound like, I will need some time to think about this, can I call you tomorrow with my answer? This response is better than responding in a way we will later regret.

Although it may feel like it’s necessary to respond to questions right away, collecting all questions before responding can be beneficial. This allows us time to find data to support our response and seek out additional resources and perspectives to yield the best answers. We can then send a follow-up communication to address the questions that were asked.


When we are asked tough questions it can be tempting to use a behavior called we/they. This is when we position someone else as the ‘bad guy’ to avoid delivering a response that makes us uncomfortable. For example, consider the following scenario:

Amy is Luka’s direct report who recently applied for a promotion through an open position. Amy wasn’t selected for the role and approaches Luka for feedback and clarity about the decision. Luka responds to Amy by saying, “I fought hard for you and really wanted you to get the promotion, but there was nothing I could do my boss went with the other candidate.” Luka places the blame on his boss rather than managing up the decision with key words at key times.

Instead, Luka could have said, “I understand you’ve worked hard to demonstrate you deserve this role. Our hiring process is designed to select the best fit for the role and the other candidate had unique qualifications. How do you feel about continuing to work together to support your growth for the next opportunity that arises? Is there anything specific I can support you with?” This response avoids positioning anyone negatively and uses a technique we call managing up.

When we get to the root of tough questions, deliver clear messages and pause before we respond, we avoid communication mistakes and reduce anxiety for our listeners.

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