How To Answer Tough Questions #2: Emotional Questions

This post is part of an occasional series about how to answer tough questions during media interviews, presentations, and job interviews.

Let’s say you represent a government agency and have been tasked with speaking at a local community meeting. A natural disaster occurred in that town—a major flood, perhaps—and local residents are furious at what they see as your agency’s inaction to help them rebuild.

In such a heated environment—one in which people have suffered the loss of life, work, or property—you can expect to be asked emotionally charged questions.

Your response to those questions must be aligned to the audience’s emotional concerns. Responding to emotionally heavy questions with facts alone isn’t enough. People need to know—and feel—that you “get it.”

Suffering from headache. Side view of depressed mature businessman touching head with hand with people sitting in a row behind him
The A-A-a Formula

When you’re asked an emotional question, remember the A-A-a Formula: Acknowledge, Answer, and advocate.

The first step in demonstrating that you get it is to acknowledge the audience member’s concerns before rushing into an answer.

That means you should never lead into an answer with a well‐intentioned but potentially inflammatory platitude (“I completely understand your concerns.”). Such a response can lead to a snappy retort (“How could you possibly understand? This is your first time visiting our community, and you’re not the one who lost his home!”).

Instead, a simple and sincere acknowledgement is usually sufficient:

  • “Thank you for sharing your experience.”
  • “I’m sorry to hear that happened to you.”
  • “I’m upset to learn that you had such difficulty reaching one of our representatives. That shouldn’t have happened to you.”

You might also ask the audience member a follow-up question before answering. You can ask a follow‐up diagnostic question (“When you spoke with the representative from our agency, what did you learn about their timeline for examining your property?”). Alternatively, you can try to unmask any unstated concerns or emotions behind the original question (“I know you said that our process is confusing. What do you think we can do to make the process easier for people?”).

Simply asking a relevant follow‐up question can make the audience member feel heard and often softens their tone—plus, their reply gives you the information you need to form a more precise response. Even if you don’t win over that audience member, the audience will appreciate the respect you bestowed upon the upset attendee.

The second step is to answer the question. You can use many of the techniques I’ll describe in this blog series to manage this step.

The final step, which you won’t use in every case, is to advocate for a follow-up step by informing the audience where they can learn more information or how they can get involved. (The “a” in this step is in lower case, because you’ll only use it occasionally.)

Example One

Acknowledge: “I’m sorry to hear how tough the past two months have been for you and your family. I know this isn’t enough to address your concern immediately, but I do want you to know that we’ve heard the complaints of the residents of this area…

Answer: …which is why I ordered my department to hire three new inspectors. They started last week and, as a result, we’ve doubled the number of home inspections we can perform on any given day. Our response times have improved significantly—not enough to get to everyone immediately, but enough to make a difference.

advocate: We know we still have work to do. I’m committed to doing whatever is in our power, and so is my team. If you haven’t already, I’d encourage you to consider joining our Citizen’s Panel. It’s important for us to hear from informed citizens like you, and we’re committed to learning how we can continue to improve our services.”

Example Two

Acknowledge: “Thank you for sharing your story with me. It sounds like our usual procedure wasn’t followed in your case, which concerns me.”

Answer: Typically in these cases, we have an inspector out to a property within 15 days and a follow‐up inspection by an engineer, if necessary, within 30 days. We succeed at that most of the time, but as your case illustrates, not all of the time.

advocate: I’d like to speak with you afterward to learn more about your case to see if there’s any follow up I can do on your behalf. If there is, I’d be happy to help.”