Nothing can fluster even the most unflappable professional like being asked a question to which they don’t know the answer. Appearing incompetent or uninformed is one thing, but what makes this scenario even worse is when you’re asked the ‘impossible question’ in a group setting. Maybe it’s a group you know well—or maybe it’s a group you’re building early credibility with and hoping to impress. You’re unsure of the details, you may feel a bit embarrassed, and you’re not sure how to word a response.
Rather than turning to “I don’t know” as a default, prepare yourself with some more powerful responses. Just as you want to avoid looking clueless, you also want to avoid a defensive attitude, from which nothing good can come.
So much of the time, managers, peers, clients—and even hiring managers—don’t expect you to have an encyclopedic mind or never make a mistake. More than anything, they give you their trust when they know how you size up problems and how you tackle problems.
By using some of these opening scripts below, you can approach the situation by projecting a professional image and a commitment to get the facts:
- “Let me be sure I understand which information you’re looking for…” This is a great response for a few reasons. First and foremost, it gives you some time to think about how you are going to handle the remark or request. It also allows you to hear more details of the issue at handso that you can react to a smaller piece of the puzzle rather than one large, ominous request.
- “Based on what we know today, my thoughts are…” By framing your response this way, you convey to your listeners that you have a limited understanding of the topic, but that you’re willing to make an informed guess. You can even point out an additional piece of information that could build your team’s understanding of the issue and suggest how you will go about getting it. A cousin of this retort is, “My best educated estimate is as follows…”
- “That’s a timely question, because I’m currently gathering XYZ information…” As you return from vacation, let’s say, and are getting up to speed on what happened in your absence, it’s fine to convey that you are “in the process” of getting informed. Since you want to give only correct information in any response, this question shows your initiative to uncover the specifics before providing conjecture or speculation of the circumstances.
- “I can answer that in part, but would like to consider it further and get back to you.” Many times when we don’t know how to deal with something, we have the inclination to give up totally. Postponing giving a full answer—until you have all of the facts—can buy you credibility. Still, by providing what you do know, you’re leading with what you have rather than highlighting what you lack.
- “Great question. I’m just not familiar enough with XYZ to hazard a guess. Let me connect you with…” When a client asks us about a different subject matter than we’re expert in, it’s easy to want to please them by showing what little bit of insight we do have. If however you could hurt your reputationby doing so or give erroneous information, stop in your tracks. Gently explain why someone else is the better go-to person and set a timeline for contacting the right people or uncovering the information.