Have you ever been in a meeting with a client who asks a question that you or your team can’t answer? Have you ever listened to a colleague answer anyway, despite not knowing what he or she was talking about?
Unless you’re perfect, you’ve been asked questions you can’t answer. There are essentially two ways to respond — make something up or choose some variation of “I don’t know” that is both honest and acknowledges the value of the question.
Don’t Fake It
Making up an answer is usually a desperate attempt to maintain status as an “expert” and to not appear weak. It’s an ill-fated tactic of the “fake it until you make it” school of business. Having no idea what you’re talking about makes you sound like, well, a politician.
I’m not much of a bullshitter. When I was a kid, our family traveled to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls,. While we were there, we convinced my dad to buy some fireworks, which were illegal in New York State. At the border on our way back, the guard asked whether we had anything to declare or any contraband (like fireworks). A simple “no” would have gotten us through, but Dad, to our youthful dismay, handed them over.
It’s no surprise that I have a hard time telling someone I know the answer when I don’t.
Other Ways to Say You Don’t Know
Some communications and leadership experts suggest never uttering “I don’t know,” a phrase they suggest makes you seem weak. Instead of “I don’t know,” they recommend phrases like “I don’t have enough information,” “Good question, I’ll find out,” or “Based on what I know, I think …”
They never recommend lying, which may make you seem like you know what you’re talking about but surely is a sign of weakness. The second worst thing you can do is say you don’t know and then let it drop.
But I Can Find Out
The key to a satisfying “I don’t know” is the follow-up. “I don’t know, but I can find out and let you know later today,” is one example. Another is “That’s not my area of expertise, but my colleague Steve may have the answer.”
Another possible response is to give a conditional response like “Based on my experience …,” making sure everyone understands the response is your best guess.
Although it might make us feel uncomfortable to be asked a question we can’t answer right away, we can also be thankful for them. Such questions often point to a problem with a presentation that can be corrected. Or they can help us identify a different way of thinking about a problem. They can also give an opportunity to do some extra research and to demonstrate reliability when we get back to the questioner with an answer.