When to Answer a Question with a Question
Most decisions at a non-profit will cross the executive director’s desk at some point. While we might have an amazing team, we will still field questions about budget limitations for programs and advice for challenges. We are often the first stop for questions about the operations of the organization, such as accounting, human resources, insurance, and fundraising. We don’t always have all the answers, but we sure do talk a lot.
Nervous anxiety takes over.
The time when an executive director answers the most questions is often at a board meeting. We answer questions about our reports. We explain our budget. We justify our work to fulfill the strategic priorities. All those questions, especially when coming at us rapid-fire from board member after board member can lead any executive director to talk more and more. We run the risk of letting a sort of nervous anxiety take over and ramble out answers that are too long and not as coherent as we know we can be.
Ask your own question.
One of the best practices an executive director can implement to mitigate that feeling of needing to respond on the spot, is to ask a clarification question before answering. The practice buys a little time and helps to build a small buffer to think through a more thoughtful, and succinct, answer. Here’s how it works.
Got a question that’s pushing your buttons? Respond with “I want to understand exactly what you’re asking, can you give me a few more details?”
Getting accused of doing something that you know isn’t prevented by policy? Respond with “I’d like to check my notes and get back to you with the full details. Should I email the whole board next week, or report at the next meeting?”
Fielding questions from too many board members all at once? Respond with, “Who’s question should I answer first?”
There is another trick question, and that’s when the board doesn’t ask any questions and there is dead silence. It can feel like a board, that usually asks dozens of questions, is silent only because they don’t know where to start. I understand this challenge and I always fight the urge to rattle off a handful of additional details. Instead, when faced with a surprising lack of questions, respond with “If there are no questions, we can move on.”
The solution is to s-l-o-w down.
When questions from the board are coming fast and furious, it can feel like an executive director has 12 bosses and not just one. The experience can feel very much like an attack. The urge to want to spit out a fast answer in defense, can make an executive director look unprepared or lacking knowledge.
The answer isn’t better planning. The answer isn’t to stop talking. The solution is to s-l-o-w down and insert a question of your own.
Whether your question gives you enough time to think of an answer in the moment or to come back with a researched answer, asking a clarification question is a little like having an ace up your sleeve. The process with buy you a little time to collect your thoughts, diffuse an emotional reaction (anger, shock, surprise), and help an executive director keep their cool in the moment.
What’s your question?
Give these ideas a try at your next board meeting, or anywhere you feel the questions are flying a little too quickly. You can script out your questions in advance if that helps. I certainly do that in situations where I am feeling particularly unsure. Or, you can ad lib your question in the moment, if you want a less planned feel.
If you give the clarifying question concept a try, I’d love to hear how it worked for you. Please use the form on the right side of the page to let me know.
Hi, I'm Christie Saas, former board member, current Executive Director, and non-profit volunteer. I remember well, those early years when I lacked the training, the confidence, and the work-life balance to focus on becoming the best non-profit leader I could be.
Fast-forward past many bumps in the road, lessons learned, and you’ll find me still in the trenches, but a little wiser, a little calmer, and a whole lot happier. I love my work and I want to help you love yours too.
I created ChristieSaas.com so non-profit leaders never need to feel alone. I’m here to help. If you’re a brand-new non-profit leader, or a little more seasoned, someone who’s looking to make a meaningful contribution and still have time for a full life away from the job, you’re in the right place.
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