Three Tips for Tough Questions that Women Can’t Ignore

Whenever I prepare someone for an interview, I always ask for a list of tough questions. We all have them. They’re the questions we pray we won’t be asked. People hate admitting they have them, even in the safety of a coaching session.

By now, I know enough to come prepared with my own list, and I can always tell when I’ve hit on one by the sheepish look staring back at me.

“Do we really have to practice that question? I have no idea how to answer it.”

Tough questions aren’t unique to women, but there’s a good reason for women to embrace them. Pay attention to the gender breakdown of experts in the news and you’ll begin to understand why.

Men are quoted three times more often than women on the front page of The New York Times. When it comes to op-eds, women account for a dismal 20 percent of bylines; on the Sunday morning political shows, only one out of every seven guests interviewed is a woman.

Many factors account for this imbalance. For starters: ingrained bias and the lopsided gender make-up of newsrooms. I would also add a confidence gap: an unwillingness to put ourselves out there if there’s a chance we might screw up.

Here’s where tough questions come in. If you’re hiding from them, it’s unlikely that you’re stepping forward to put yourself on a bigger stage. If you think this problem only applies to women who get calls from reporters, you’re wrong.

Tough questions crop up in every part of our life. They hang over us at job interviews, networking events, even PTA meetings and first-dates. Just thinking “I hope I don’t get asked…” can keep us from showing up, putting ourselves forward, and risking failure.

So how can you handle tough questions?

Write them down! This seems obvious, but most people would rather pretend their tough questions don’t exist. Putting them on paper feels uncomfortable because suddenly the questions are staring you in the face. Here’s the thing: you’re not going to figure out the answer in your head. You need to put pen to paper. In all my years of media training, I’ve never had a client say, “I drafted a full page of possible responses and nothing worked.”

Drop the defense. Tough questions make us feel uncomfortable which puts us on our guard. The result? Our answers are too long and too apologetic. We equivocate instead of owning our response. You don’t need a paragraph of apologies to explain the gap in your resume. Look at your answers and make them short and assertive.

Ditch perfectionism. For many women, this is the hardest to implement, but it’s so important. You need to give yourself permission to say with confidence, “I don’t know.” No one — and I mean no one — has the answer to everything. If you’re waiting to put yourself out there until you have the perfect answer to every possible question, you’re not preparing; you’re hiding.

If you want to know more about the gender imbalance in the media, check out Foreign Policy Interrupted, Women’s Media Center, SheSource, and The Op-Ed Project. In the meantime, start thinking about your own tough questions.

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