How Education Leaders Answer Tough Questions with Confidence

Melissa Matarazzo, DeAnna Ashby

In Brief

6-Minute Read

From the administration level to the department manager level, education leaders are confronted with tough questions often. These questions may sound like: Why can’t the institution 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 is the institution hiring so soon after layoffs?


  • Tough questions often arise from the resistance or fear of changes and concern from self. Effective communication from school leaders can reduce tough questions and listener fears.

  • Education leaders should anticipate the tough questions they may receive and collaborate across the institution to create a list of questions and draft answers. Use this exercise to develop communication plans.

  • Avoid placing blame on others or delivering an emotional response. Instead rely on positive messages, key words at key times and data to support answers to tough questions.

Did that Question Catch You Off Guard?

Tough questions arise from staff and employees, students and external audiences such as families and the media – who all want to be informed. In addition, the number of tough questions school leaders receive typically increases as leadership announces changes or decisions to relevant parties. It’s common to avoid answering tough questions directly. However, this results in using the we/they behavior that should be avoided.

Although school leaders can reduce the number of tough questions, they can’t eliminate tough questions altogether. Instead, prepare to communicate effectively and answer the tough questions that remain.

Getting to the Root of Tough Questions

If tough questions are being asked, consider why those types of questions are arising. What is at the root of these inquiries? Is there a lack of clarity in outgoing messages? A lack of specific feedback related to performance or expectations?

Change can be uncomfortable for many people. Furthermore, change is often 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 leaders introduce change it is a natural human response to want to understand the effects of the change. People often start thinking about, what does this mean for me, and 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 specific audience 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, use that information to prepare for answering tough questions in the future. To respond to tough questions effectively, prepare, pause and then answer the question.

Prepare to Reduce and Anticipate Tough Questions

When communicating, the goal is to help the person on the receiving end understand the message being sent. People expect educational leaders to deliver clear effective messages that will leave them feeling inspired. At times, however, communication leaves employees and students feeling confused or concerned. To reduce confusion, and hopefully a few tough questions, practice using key words at key times to connect the dots for people. When using key words at key times, the focus is on the audience. Ultimately, the goal is to design a message that is clear and increases the listener’s confidence. Therefore, communication starts with why the message is important to the receiver.

In addition to planning messages well, school leaders should also anticipate the tough questions they 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 an answer each question. With these drafts in mind, incorporate these messages into the communication plan to increase understanding and therefore reduce the number of questions. If there’s information that can’t fit into the original message, take time to practice the drafted answers. There is a good change people will ask about anything left out.

Another way to prepare and anticipate tough questions is to develop a consistent approach for all institution leaders to use. As updates or changes are planned, connect with other school leaders first. Work together to identify the tough questions employees and students may ask and what response will be most appropriate. Lastly, cascade this information throughout the institution so tough questions are answered in a consistent, aligned and accurate way.

School administration leaders often represent the institution in front of external audiences such as the media, community members or families. What is said to the public is never off the record and can’t be taken back. Devote plenty of time to prepare for a press conference or any other external speaking opportunity.

Pause Before Answering Tough Questions

Whether it’s a tough question, or one that’s less difficult, it’s helpful to practice pausing before beginning. Take a deep breath in and let it out. Try to avoid reacting to a question and letting emotions dominate the conversation. Instead, focus on how to deliver a meaningful response. 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 that sparks regret.

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

Answer Tough Questions

When tough questioned are presented, it can be tempting to use a behavior called we/they. This is when someone else is positioned as the ‘bad guy’ to avoid delivering a response that makes the leader 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 by using 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 positive communication technique called managing up. Tough questions are an opportunity for school leaders to take responsibility in a positive way, rather than placing blame on someone else.

Reduce anxiety for listeners and avoid communication mistakes by discovering the root of tough questions, delivering clear messages and pausing before responding.


To answer tough questions with confidence, school leaders need to:
  • Think differently.
    Understand what is at the root of tough questions from students, employees and faculty. Remember, people often fear change and need to communication that facilitates understanding and calms anxiety.
  • Plan differently.
    Anticipate the tough questions people will ask. Plan to use specific key words and focus on what each audience will most need to know. Establish a consistent approach for sharing messages that all school leaders follow.
  • Act differently.
    Avoid letting emotions elicit a reaction to a tough question. Instead, pause, take a deep breath and deliver a meaningful response. Rather than placing blame, or positioning others in the institution negatively, use key words and positive messages.

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