Senior leaders are asked questions all the time: from colleagues, direct reports, journalists, partners, and customers. Your ability to answer questions well is the difference between being on point versus missing the mark.

Why is being good at answering questions a competitive advantage? Given the number of times you are asked questions every day, this is a high frequency way to demonstrate your credibility. You'll spend less time worrying about how to answer, and more time nailing every question that comes your way.

Why the underlying question matters

Your coworker asks you a question. Your answer is 100 percent accurate, but they're not satisfied. They keep pushing, but you don't know how to craft a compelling response they can feel confident about.

The next time an audience seems dissatisfied with your reply, ask yourself, "What's the question behind the question? What do they really want to know?"

First, what's a question behind a question?

When a person asks you something, there's the surface question--then there's a deeper layer. It's usually something the other person is trying to uncover. It could be a deeper worry, concern, or curiosity.

Most of the time, it's subconscious. If we assume positive intent, your audience isn't actively trying to deceive you. They're not asking one thing while secretly wanting to know something else. They might not even know themselves why your answer doesn't seem good enough.

Until you address the question behind the question, your audience won't feel like you've fully answered their question.

How to address the underlying question

For example, let's say your colleague is usually at 10,000 feet but zooms in to ask what's happening with a tiny detail. The question-behind-the-question is, "Is everything under control? Should I be worried? Should I be more involved on a daily basis?"

Most people simply answer the specific question at face value, but that's a missed opportunity. Instead, you should answer with the question-behind-the-question in mind.

Reassure them. Show you have the situation under control. Even if this means going out of scope with this specific question, go ahead and show you've covered other potential areas of risk. Make them feel safe about how the project is going.

Your reply can still be short and sweet. For example:

"Great question. I had a meeting with my head of growth a few days ago. She shared a report and our growth stats are tracking along exactly as expected. Based on this estimate, it should take 1-2 months to hit our KPIs. It's on my radar to monitor the team's progress weekly. If there's anything else I can pull up, let me know and I'm happy to dig into it."

With this reply, you show a positive attitude. You've got the project under control. It's not just what you say, it's how you say it. Being positive and confident is just as important as the actual update you share.

Does your audience feel seen and heard?

If you keep repeating yourself when answering a question, it's natural to feel defensive and frustrated. After all, you've already told your audience--whether it's your client, coworker or conference attendees--what they wanted to know. Why aren't they satisfied? What else could they be looking for?

Don't be defensive. Don't shame them for asking the question. You'll appear more confident if you welcome questions and are patient in addressing what their underlying question could be. The assumption is you have answers ready for other questions, too. 

When you answer with the question-behind the-question in mind, both parties feel more satisfied. You feel good knowing that you nailed a tough question. The person asking the question will feel seen and heard. That's ultimately what we want when we engage with anyone.

The next time you get asked a question, remember to ask yourself: What's the question behind the question? How can I address both the surface question and underlying question?