We’ve all experienced that moment when someone asks us a question and we’re caught unprepared. At the minimum, it’s awkward. But there are ways to be prepared for any question that comes along, according to Allison Shapira for Harvard Business Review.

Here are her pro tips for handling tough questions:


  1. Prepare in advance.

You can usually anticipate many of the difficult questions you’re going to face. Before an all-hands meeting, look at the agenda and identify what questions might come up, then invite a few peers to role play. Have them ask you challenging questions and work on answers that feel comfortable and authentic to you. Put yourself in your audience’s shoes and ask yourself how they may feel in response to those answers.


  1. Pause and breathe. 

Whenever we field tough questions, we often feel the need to jump in right away to answer. However, without complete information, we often throw in filler words, ramble and double-back on what we said. Because clarity is one of the key ways in which we build trust, fumbling can jeopardize credibility.

Before you answer, take a minute to pause and gather your thoughts. Try closing your mouth and breathing in through your nose – which forces you to stop talking – or calmly taking a sip of water that you brought for just this purpose. It’s an acceptable break that gives you a few much-needed seconds to think about your answer and ensure that your emotions don’t control you.


  1. Express empathy and honesty. 

Words matter, especially in difficult situations. Start by acknowledging the question through a transition phrase such as “That’s a critical question, thank you for asking,” and then use empathetic language, such as “If I were in your shoes, I would be asking the exact same question.”


  1. Acknowledge the uncertainty.

When you have incomplete information, you can acknowledge uncertainty and use phrases such as “Here’s what we know at this point,” or, in more sensitive situations, use “What I can say is this” to share what information you do have.

And you can confidently express uncertainty: Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know,” or “No one has the answer at this point, but here’s what we’re doing to address it.”