Tonight sees Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer go head-to-head in the first TV debate of the 2024 General Election. Their ability to perform under pressure and handle tough questions with confidence will be key as they battle it out to win the public’s hearts and minds.

You don’t have to be on the campaign trail to understand the importance of thinking on your feet when you’re put in a spot. I’m sure all of us can think of a time when we’ve been asked a question that catches us out. It could be when you’re presenting at a town hall meeting, pitching to a client or being interviewed for a new job. By following the steps below, you’ll be well placed to handle those tough questions live in the moment.

Anticipate and prepare for curve balls

When it comes to handling tough questions, forewarned really is forearmed. Take the time to identify any challenging questions that could come your way and plan how best to respond.  Preparing in this way will help boost your confidence and give you the headspace to focus on your delivery as you communicate your response.

Listen with empathy

Hearing is involuntary, listening is a skill. It takes real effort to actively listen to what the other person is asking you. Dial up your empathy to understand the other person’s challenges and pain points. People like to feel heard. This doesn’t mean you have to agree with their point of view, instead demonstrate you understand their perspective by naming the feeling such as, “I can see that you find this frustrating…”

Take a deep breath

This may sound obvious but don’t forget to breathe after you’ve been asked a tough question. The oxygen will help calm your brain. It will also give you a moment to respond rather than react to what is being asked. A powerful way to help you gather your thoughts is to compliment them saying “that’s a thought-provoking question.” This will give you time to manage your state so you can communicate with your audience with confidence.

Rephrase the question

A powerful way to deal with hostile questions is to rephrase them in a more positive way to remove the emotion. This means drawing on your self-control to respond in a measured way so you don’t appear defensive. An example could be a client asking, “Why are you making us work on this ridiculous project?” which you rephrase as “So you want to better understand the reasons for this project?” By taking control in this way, you will not only manage the energy levels in the room, you will also reduce the potency of the situation.

Be honest and open

If you really don’t know the answer to a question, don’t be tempted to bluff your way through or even worse make something up. Instead, have the confidence to admit you don’t know by deferring to an expert and saying “this isn’t my area of expertise but X should be able to help you.” Alternatively, you may have to revert and promise to get back to them. The secret to handling this effectively is to communicate in a confident manner. This means focusing on what you say, how you sound and what you look like. By adopting a confident posture and communicating in an open and honest way, you are more likely to build trust and win your audience’s hearts and minds.

Finally, as we tune into ITV tonight and watch Sunak vs Starmer, I’m sure we’ll see that regardless of preparation, handling tough questions is not for the faint-hearted. It’s about adopting a can-do mindset and drawing on your resilience to bounce back from any setbacks along the way.