Posted May 30, 2017

How Do I Answer That? A Guide to Answering Tough Questions

By Stephanie Baker, R.N., MBA, CEN

Have you ever wondered why your staff asks so many difficult questions? Perhaps you are often asked questions like: Why can't we have more staff? Why don’t other departments have to follow the dress code, and we do? Why don’t we ever know what’s going on around here?

As leaders, we need to be honest with ourselves about why we are being asked these types of questions. We need to pause and try to understand the root of the questions being asked to determine if we are providing effective information. Did I give adequate and specific feedback on his or her performance? Have I done a good job conveying expectations? Does my staff understand that our CFO holds us accountable and expects us to be good stewards of our finances?

Understanding how to answer these tough questions is a fundamental skill for all modern leaders. Let’s examine a few steps we can take to make answering tough questions a little easier.

Step 1: Understand the “why” behind the question

When asked a tough question, the first step is to determine what makes it difficult to answer. The issue may be timing. If a person repeatedly reserves negative questions for staff meetings, you might coach them to ask those types of questions in one-on-one conversations with their leader. If a question is tough because it is complex, take the time you need to gather the necessary data to answer appropriately.

Another part of understanding the “why” is getting to the root of the issue behind the question. Sometimes we are put on the spot and feel the need to immediately answer questions. When that happens, start by diffusing the situation, and thank the asker for the question. Then dig deeper. Ask them to share more with you. What information do you have about this so far? What specifically is of interest to you about this issue? What else do you feel you need to know about this? The more information you have, the better equipped you will be to answer the question.

It comes down to knowing your audience. Most often, people ask questions because they want to know how something will affect them. As leaders, our job is to determine why the person is asking. Are they asking because of rumors they’ve heard? Do they want to see if they get the same answer from you that a colleague in another department received from their leader? Are they truly seeking information that they don’t know? Use your judgement to assess the asker and determine what will be most helpful to them.

Step 2: Determine what information you need to provide the best answer

It is vital that leaders answer tough questions, but keep in mind you don’t have to do it immediately. You can let your staff know that you need more time to give a thoughtful answer. I’d like to gather some information so I can provide you the best and most accurate answer. Can I get back to you in the next 2-3 days?

This is also a great opportunity to engage the asker, if appropriate, in collecting any necessary data or information. People generally don't fight their own ideas. If people have ideas about what should happen, challenge them to engage in helping review the data and determining the next steps.

Step 3: Utilize your resources

Emotions can dominate difficult conversations. In these situations, it is imperative to keep calm and stick to the facts. Remember, it is okay to pause and determine what information you need. This is the perfect opportunity to utilize data and subject matter experts to assist with formulating a thorough and accurate answer. Be sure to address any myths and decipher between facts and feelings. Remember, data trumps opinion, so take the time to look for the truth. It may be necessary to stop, pull some data, and determine if the issue is an isolated event or if it is a longer-term trend.

It is important to write down your response and prepare for follow-up questions. You may want to practice the delivery of your answer with a trusted colleague or seek advice from your leader and/or human resources.

In her recent book, “Taking Conversations from Difficult to Doable” author Lynne Cunningham, MPA, FACE offers ideas on how to keep conversations from escalating out of control by seeking to complete, not compete.

Step 4: Decide how best to communicate the answer

Depending on the question, you must decide what is the best way to communicate your response. Think about how your staff or direct report will respond. Should this be a one-on-one conversation? Or will the information benefit everyone?

For individual conversations, schedule plenty of time for questions and coaching, if needed. Start out by letting the person know you have researched their question and you appreciate their feedback. At the end of the meeting, be sure to thank them and ask if they have further questions. Being thoughtful and inclusive will help ensure your staff stays engaged.

For group situations, prepare an answer and leave time for additional questions that may arise. Provide written communication in follow-up to ensure clarity and consistency. This may also include a section of frequently asked questions (FAQs). Finally, create standardized talking points for your leaders. This will allow them to answer any follow-up questions thoughtfully, thoroughly, and consistently.

In the end, answering tough questions is not easy for most leaders. But if you follow these four basic steps, you will find that difficult questions aren’t so scary after all.

Stephanie Baker, RN, MBA, CEN is a coach leader for Studer Group with over 30 years of clinical nursing and administrative experience in the areas of emergency, trauma, flight and critical care medicine.

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