How to Respond to Unanswerable Questions

Respond to Unanswerable Questions

For leaders who need a few sentence starters

By Elena Aguilar

Claude, a principal in the San Francisco area, is frustrated because he’s receiving so many questions from his staff that he can’t answer. These include: “Do you think it’ll be safe to come back to school in the fall?” and “What if we can’t take our annual Frosh camping trip in October?” 

“What should I tell them?” Claude asked me. “They keep asking, what-if-questions that no one knows the answer to—definitely not me!” 

Leadership is always hard. But in these times, right now, these uncertain, anxiety-filled times—leadership is really hard. Because we want someone who has answers, who seems to have control over what’s going on, who assures us that everything will be ok. And no one can do that right now. But there answers you can offer when you are peppered with questions. 

If you only have 2 minutes, say:

  • “I really wish I could answer that question. We all want answers and living with this uncertainty is hard. But unfortunately I don’t know what things will be like in the fall. Let’s focus on next week right now and I’ll update you as soon as I have more information.”

This communicates compassion and understanding, but manages expectations about what you’re capable of. 

If you have 5 minutes to talk, say: 

  • “I really wish I could answer that question. We all want answers and living with this uncertainty is hard. Tell me more about how you’re doingI’ve got about five minutes and would love to hear. 

This invites someone to share their feelings, and it’s likely that what they need most right now is to be heard. 

If you have 10 minutes to talk, say: 

  • “Tell me more about where this question is coming from.” 

This invites the asker to share what’s on their mind. Listen well. You’ll hear fear and uncertainty. Respond to the fear—not the “What If…” question. Respond with compassion. Resist the urge to provide promises, answers, concrete fixes. 

Want to refine your skills to lead amidst a crisis? 

Here are three next steps:

  • Miss our free webinar on Leadership in Times of Crisis on May 20? The video is embedded below – watch it! – it’s a wonderful conversation between my friend and colleague Jessie Cordova and me.
  • Sign up for our Leadership Summit! It’s five weeks (six including pre-meeting activities) of learning in community with other leaders.
  • Read Leading in Times of Crisis