How to respond when you don't know the answer to a question...

In this post we will give you the key formula for handling questions you have no idea how to answer.  Don’t worry, you aren’t the only person who’s felt like a deer in front of headlights when you a get a question you don't know how to answer, let alone understand. It makes us all feel pretty small but let’s turn the tables on this feeling. 




Getting a question you don’t know the answer to is an extremely terrifying experience at work. The problem is we put so much pressure on ourselves to know the answer to every single question within a moment's notice. That is equivalent to treating yourself as if you were a google search engine, NOT POSSIBLE! We can hardly remember people’s names let alone the answer to EVERYTHING! Instead of feeling the pressure to know the answer to everything at the blink of an eye, realistically, you should feel the pressure to know how to get the answer to anything and follow up within 24 hours.  That is more a realistic expectation than knowing the answer to everything in a moment's notice. If you work for a company it is really valuable if you know how to navigate the oil tanker in order to solve problems rather than know the answer to everything and anything, instantly.


The brain does a funny thing when we feel unrealistic pressure.  The brain starts focusing on all the horrible possibilities if we don't know an answer. What if we look stupid, what if we look like we are dropping the ball, what if we lose credibility, what if the person asking loses respect for us, what if, what if? 


Instead of obsessively focusing on ourselves and how bad we are going to look, I find what really helps is to remember this is a chance to make the person asking the question to look good and feel good. How do we do that? 


The formula: 

Provide a thoughtful response + Timeframe for when you will provide an answer = Look Good 


Let’s look at two scenarios. 


Scenario 1: Imagine you’re with a sophisticated client and they ask you a challenging question that you don’t know the answer to.  I would respond… 


A) That’s a really interesting question, my analysis didn’t take me there. [thoughtful response]  I’ll provide some initial thoughts now and will follow up in 24 hours with the precise answer. [timeframe for answer]


B) I’m really glad you asked that question. We haven’t heard this question yet. [thoughtful response] I have to investigate one thing to get you the proper answer and I’ll get back to you by Friday at noon. [timeframe for answer]


C) That’s the first time I’ve heard that question. Give me a moment because I want to be thoughtful before I respond. (This gives you an extended period to be silent.)


D) That’s a thought provoking question. A quick response won’t do so I will get back to you today. 


How would the client feel if you used one of these responses? They would feel sharp, intelligent, and sophisticated. You can make the client look good, feel good, and they would be more engaged as long as it's not a simple answer that you should be able to provide. 


If you provided an answer such as… “ah I don’t know”, or, “I have not idea”, these will come across as less prepared and the client will focus on you rather than themselves asking a solid question.


This formula does not work for basic questions that you should know the answer to.  If someone asks you what your middle name is and you responded with "that’s a really interesting question"…you’d be laughed out of the room.  However, I feel confident that if you are reading this blog then you are focused on improving and growing and as a result you should be able to handle standard questions. If you don’t know the answer to a lot of basic questions then you need to put more work in because this will make you look bad.  Don’t feel bad, just put the preparation time in. 


Scenario 2: It’s an internal meeting where your boss is grilling you and there is more pressure to be ready for any and every question. Sure, the previous strategies will work with clients but internal questions create even more pressure.  You just need to change your wording a bit, but the fundamental structure remains the same. 


A) I can provide you with some initial thoughts right now or the precise answer by the end of the day, what is your preference?  (This response shows you are confident in getting the answer and lets the leader have control over when they receive the response from you.)


B) Thoughtful question, I didn’t anticipate this one in my preparation process. I’ll have the answer for you by the end of the day.  (This response shows you prepped but couldn’t prep for every possible thing.)


C) My initial analysis didn’t take me there. I can share some initial thoughts and then follow up with the precise answer later today.  (This responses shows you prepped but this was not part of prep but you are excited to follow up.)


D) I hate when I get asked a question I don’t have the answer to but these are the exact questions that make me better. Keep them coming. I’ll get back to you by the end of the week.   (This response shows a touch of humility. It shows you want to keep improving and you have a great attitude.)


Avoid doing the following when it comes to questions:


A) Initially responding “that’s a great question.”   I have two problems with this one.  First, what happens if you say this to a second or a third person.  The first person will think oh, you say that to everyone! Do you think everyone has a great question? Secondly, it’s cliche and everyone says that’s a great question. It shows you are on autopilot and doesn't come across as thoughtful. When you use cliche statements you lose credibility and impact. 


B) Stating “I don’t know the answer.”  While this is honest, it shows that you are not thoughtful and unprepared.  This is a last resort but a few extra words can really make the difference.  Here is an example...I don’t know the answer off the top of my head but I’ll get back to you by XYZ. 


C) Stare back and say nothing with a shocked look on your face. This response shows you can’t think on your feet and you aren’t witty.  This may create an impression that you are not prepared to be in front of clients.


Your homework for next time you don't know the answer to a question:


1. Write 3-4 thoughtful responses you can verbally respond with when you don’t know the answer to a question.  Feel free to use my responses but it is best if you write a response that is authentic and aligned with your personality and demeanor.  Have more than one response prepared just in case you get 2-3 questions you don’t know the answer to.  If you use the same response twice it loses the impact. Remember the formula: Provide a thoughtful response + Timeframe for when you will provide an answer = Look Good


2. Do you feel the pressure to know everything?  If you do, this is normal but incredibly unrealistic. You are not a computer!  This is absolutely impossible.  Instead, I would feel the pressure to know how to get the answer to anything rather than knowing the answer to everything. Again, I would feel the pressure to know how to get the answer to anything rather than knowing the answer to everything. Be resourceful and take the pressure off yourself to know everything and instead feel the pressure to know how to figure out how to answer anything.


The responses above are designed to showcase your ability to know how to get the answer to anything! Get excited about questions you don't know the answer to because you will no longer look bad, you can make the other person look good, and most importantly you will be learning something new.   


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