A 3-Step Response Strategy for Any Difficult Question

January 18, 2016
Younger hand holding an older person hand

Because of the subject matter we teach at CPI, we receive tough questions every day.

Some people want to know how to respond to a specific scenario. Others might ask about the research behind specific parts of the training we provide. Others might ask a question about billing, documenting training, or the course material.

And speaking of the course material, Nonviolent Crisis Intervention® training talks about questioning as the first component of the Verbal Escalation ContinuumSM. We teach that there are two types of questions: information-seeking questions and challenging questions.

For challenging questions where the person is really presenting an invitation to a power struggle, we of course need to recognize this challenge and either stick to the topic or set limits. We need to downplay the challenge, but never the person.

When it comes to information-seeking questions, even these can sound somewhat challenging sometimes.

So what could be better than a quick three-step plan to help answer any difficult question?

Step One: Validate

If there’s a lot of emotion tied to the question (or even if there isn’t), it’s important to validate the person’s question and the feelings they express in asking it.

The person may feel angry simply because no one has sufficiently addressed their concerns in the past. As nonsensical or non sequitur as the question may seem to you, providing empathy and understanding is all the person may need to feel better about the situation at hand.

How you say what you say will, of course, be very important. The person might be on guard, waiting for you to dismiss their question.

If they seem emotionally charged, you can use an “I” statement to indicate that you can see that they’re upset and that you feel that answering the question for them is as important to you as getting an answer from you is important to them. For instance, “I can see this question is important to you. Let’s find the answers.” 

For less emotionally charged questions, begin your answer by saying, “That’s a very good question.”

Step Two: Inform

After the outpouring of support, there is one word a cynical person is always waiting to hear:


“But” often signals to a person that empathy time is over. And as soon as some people hear it, they stop listening. So we need a different way to express the information we intend to provide. A way that keeps the person listening.

Objectivity is your best friend. Express the facts that you know, and if needed, cite your sources, especially when the person’s question might have included “facts” that are somewhat dubious in nature. Tell them, objectively and rationally, that you have information from (your source) that says ____.

Position yourself as an advocate for the person, rather than an adversary. If you don’t know the factual answer to their question, admit that you don’t know, and either find someone who can answer it or help find the answer from a credible source—at least one you can both agree on as a credible source.

If there are a lot of variables to consider with the question asked, look for a principles-based answer rather than running through all of the possible what-ifs. You might briefly touch on how those principles should be applied to the situation the person is asking about, but let the person draw their own connections to the specifics of their situation.  

In many cases, simply reminding the person about the principle will be enough, as they will draw their own connections to the specifics of their situation. In other cases, you might have to elucidate a bit more on how the principles apply. If you’re still not sure of a program-specific answer, our Support Services is glad to help.

Step Three: Build Trust and Rapport

To close out your answer to the question, look for feedback from the person to be sure the answer is sufficient. This could be as simple as “Does that help?” Or you might invite them to further conversation. 

This encourages them to continue to rely on you as a trusted source. Reinforce that you are advocating for their success and restate what the information is that they need and how it applies to them.

The Medium Matters

One last word about the method used for communicating with the person who asked you the question.

Technology is providing more and more ways for us to communicate with each other, and choosing which method is best can sometimes be a little confusing.

Think about this for a moment, though:

If someone was talking to you face-to-face and you asked them a question, how awkward would it be if they texted you the answer?

The fact is that the person asking the question has used the medium they feel most comfortable using, and part of validating their question is providing them some information through that medium.

Remember, you’re trying to alleviate their discomfort, and they picked the method that works best for them.

If they’ve posted to an online forum, for example, provide as much of an answer to them as possible on that forum—more than simply asking, “Can I call you about that?” There might be some cases where you might not go into great detail on the forum, but you can stick to the principles you know.

Answering a question in an online forum is similar to answering in front of a group, face-to-face. There will be lots of people who are listening in on the answer, some who might also want to know. You gain (or at least maintain) your credibility in front of the group best by providing a principles-based answer in front of the group (see Step 2), then offering to follow up about specifics on the side.

Email is a great way to answer a question, because you can include attachments and links to resources to add credibility to your answer. But if the person has asked their question through a different medium, start the discussion there and follow up in whatever format is the most respectful and efficient for the particular question.

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