For Leaders, Perception Is Reality

Leaders are regularly faced with difficult questions. Often, it's not your answer to those questions, but your delivery that has the most influence on how you are perceived and the impact of your response. Ultimately, how you are viewed in these moments can influence your effectiveness, credibility and future professional growth and development.

I just finished a call with an ambitious, powerful client who was feeling defeated at the conclusion of a high stakes interview process for a big promotion. When the process concluded, she received the feedback that she appeared nervous and uncomfortable, and stumbled when answering a difficult question. Having worked with this client for many years, I am confident that this wasn't a competence issue. A leader in her field, she is often sought out as a subject matter expert.

So what went wrong for this typically confident professional? Several things:

1. She went into the interview nervous, questioning whether she was qualified and could be successful.
2. When the actual question was asked, she immediately started talking, first repeating the question and then stumbling as she got her thoughts in order.
3. When she finally answered the question, her response was strong, but she had already lost her audience and her credibility, due to the distracting lead-up to her answer.

Most of us can relate to what happened to my client. She had an important opportunity that she wanted to go well, and her nerves got the better of her.

Together, we developed a strategy for the next time she finds herself being asked difficult questions in a high stakes situation. Most of us could benefit from following this plan:

1. Affirm your competence and confidence before the big stakes event by briefly focusing on and determining what you want to accomplish and how you want to present yourself. Go in clear about your agenda and desired outcome.

2. Get comfortable with time, breath and silence. Often when we're asked a question, we feel the need to fill the blank space by immediately starting talking. This can lead to that stumbling or 'hemming and hawing'. It's much more powerful to take a breath (which only takes about three seconds. Really, time yourself on your phone.) to give yourself time to think. Then, start your answer with a direct statement instead of "I think, um, well, that is a good question...[your brilliant statement]". Give yourself time and space to get clear on the first powerful message you want to deliver and then let your expertise build on to it.

3. Pay attention to your body. When asked the question and while forming that first statement, stay where you are and let your body show that you are a leader. Continue to stand or sit assertively and confidently. Hold your head up and don't fumble, twirl your pen or do anything superfluous with your body. You can be assertive and hold the space as a leader, while you are gathering your thoughts to start your message.

Here's the bottom line: as your leadership opportunities develop, you will be in more situations where you will be asked difficult questions and need to think on your feet. You don't have to know all of the answers immediately. You do need to be able to respond in a way that engenders confidence from your audience that you can handle whatever comes your way. Sometimes it is not about the answer but how you handle the question...usually it is about both.

What are some difficult questions you've struggled with? Please share in the comment section.

Philadelphia-based leadership/executive coach Julie Cohen, PCC, is founder and CEO of Work. Life. Leader., a leadership and professional development program for emerging and developing leaders. She is the author of Your Work, Your Life...Your Way: 7 Keys to Work-Life Balance, and a blogger for Working Mother and a columnist for The Philadelphia Business Journal. Follow Cohen at or @jccoach on Twitter.