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Communicating Under Pressure: Answering Difficult Questions

“This is the Netherlands, You have to answer the question.”

US Ambassador to The Netherlands, Peter Hoekstra, found himself in hot water this week when he failed to respond during some tough questioning from the press.

Here’s the wrong way – and the right way – to answer difficult questions.

The Wrong Way to Address Hard Questions

Following his interaction with the media, the American was left deflated and embarrassed on what should have been a great day at his new job.

Hoekstra was put under pressure by the Dutch media at a meet-and-greet press conference for newly-appointed ambassadors in The Hague.

He attempted to manage the conference by communicating in the style of President Trump.

Talking over or ignoring the questions he disliked because they were hard to answer.

However, a unified Dutch Press Corp had other ideas.

They were poised, ready with questions that would deliberately put the Ambassador on the spot.

The questions related to a televised rant in 2015 where Mr. Hoekstra commented about Islamic extremism in Holland.

how to answer difficult questions scotland scrapped cars.

Mr. Hoekstra had been quoted saying:

“There are cars being burned. There are politicians being burned.”

Statements communicated without any evidence to back them up.

So, naturally, the questions directed at the newly-appointed ambassador were:

“Which cars?”

“Which politicians?”

Mr. Hoekstra looked surprised by the reception he received from the Press Corp, who had waited over two years to ask these very specific questions.

His media handler attempted to move to different journalists for questions.

The problem was that they all asked something similar, forcing the ambassador to plead the answer:

“I’m not revisiting the issue.”

In turn, the reporters to lay down the rules of engagement between politicians and the media in The Netherlands:

“This is The Netherlands. You have to answer the question!”

How sweet the sound of that point was.

It took away any power Mr. Hoekstra thought he had and left him scrambling.

As one journalist put it:

“The only one who got burned today is Hoekstra himself.”

Mr. Hoekstra should have responded directly, addressing the questions head-on.

He would then be free to explore the points he wanted to make and control the press conference.

The right way to answer tough questions

We can all spot evasiveness in the way people communicate – and it drives us mad.

Avoidance tactics or ignoring the question will only cause you embarrassment.

These steps outline how you should communicate the answer to difficult questions under pressure.

how to answer difficult questions scotland stairs.

Trust can only be built between the speaker (you) and the audience (questioner) when a question is answered directly.

STEP #1 – before you communicate anything, you must ask yourself questions such as “what are my goals” and “what are the goals of my audience?”

STEP #2 – always start your response to tough direct questions with 1 of these 4 simple direct responses:

1. Yes
2. No
3. I don’t know
4. It’s too early to tell

STEP #3 – remain calm and take a moment to steady yourself before continuing to respond.

This moment gives you a second to think about your answers to STEP #1.

STEP #4 – make a point that you want to make.

This is your opportunity to move on, having gained control of the situation.

You can now continue with the discussion, communicating with confidence.

Communicate well under pressure

how to answer difficult questions scotland donald trump.

We’re living through strange times when the President of the United States blanks all topics he finds unhelpful.

And the UK Prime Minister dodges interviews, completely ignoring questions in the occasional interviews she does takes on.

We know the ability to communicate when answering a question to an audience is challenging.

You need to seize the opportunity to practice open and honest dialogue, answering the question directly and controlling the situation.

This way you will come across to the audience as confident, trustworthy and competent.

If you attempt to ignore, shout down or challenge you will be met with a fierce retort.

Avoid ending up red-faced like the new US Ambassador by using the simple steps above to communicate under pressure and answer difficult questions.


Bill McFarlan is the Executive Chairman of Pink Elephant Communications in Glasgow.

You can view his full profile here


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Photos by Michael Vadon / CC BY-SA; thijs van spankeren / CC BY-ND, both on


25th January 2018 Featured in: Blog By:

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