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How to Answer a Question When You Don’t Know the Answer

Have you ever been asked a question that you do not know the answer to? It's embarrassing! Don't worry; you aren't the only person who's felt like a deer in front of headlights when you get a question you don't know how to answer. Not knowing the answer to a question at work is nerve-wracking because we do not want to come across unprepared or like we have no idea what we are talking about in front of our boss, colleagues, or clients. In this article, we will discuss the problem, upside, and solution to not knowing the answer to a question.

1. The Problem: we put too 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! You should feel the pressure to know how to get the answer to almost anything within a quick timeframe. In the corporate world, it is valuable to understand how to navigate the organization to find answers and solve problems.

2. The Upside: 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 foolish, look unprepared, or develop a bad reputation.

Instead of focusing on ourselves and how bad we are going to look, I find it helps to remember there is a lot of upside to not knowing the answer. You learn something, have a reason to follow up, can build trust by following up quickly, and you can make the other person feel great.

For example, imagine if I said to you, "that's the first time I've heard that question. I want to think about that for a second before I respond." How would you feel? You would feel great because you asked me a question that made me think. I wouldn't respond like this to make the other person feel good because that would be disingenuous. However, if you genuinely do not know the answer, rather than feel bad, this is an excellent opportunity to make the other person feel good for asking a fantastic question. This is an example of emotional intelligence at work. You are using self-awareness to identify that you do not know the answer. You are using self-management to manage your emotions and keep from feeling horrible about not knowing the answer. You are enhancing the relationship with the other person by acknowledging their question.

There is one caveat. Not knowing the answer to 1 or 2 questions is fine, but if it is 5 or 6, that's a problem. However, I am confident you will not be in that situation.

3. The Solution: I encourage you to use the following formula anytime you get a question you do not know how to answer.

Scenario 1: Imagine you're with a sophisticated client, and they ask you a challenging question that you don't know how to answer. You could respond with the following:

A) 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.) I'll give you my initial thoughts and then will follow up with the precise answer later today. (Timeframe for when you will follow up)

B) That's a thought-provoking question. A quick response won't do, so I will get back to you tomorrow.

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.

Scenario 2: It's an internal meeting where your boss might be grilling you, and there is more pressure to be ready for every question. The previous strategies will work with clients, but internal questions create even more stress. You 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 would be best? (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) I anticipated many questions, but this was one of the few I didn't anticipate 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 if that's ok.

D) I hate when I get asked a question I don't have the answer to, but these are the exact questions that will expand my knowledge. I'll get back to you by the end of the week. (This response shows a touch of humility, and you have a great attitude.)

Final tip: Avoid saying, "that's a great question." I'm not too fond of this response for two reasons. First, what happens if you say this to a second or a third person, the first person will think, oh, what about my question? What is everyone's question great? Second, it's cliche, and everyone says, "that's a great question." People do this to buy time or to acknowledge the other, but it can show you are on autopilot. I would challenge you to come up with something more original.

I encourage you to write 1-2 responses you can use when you do not know the answer to a question and make sure they match your personality and style. Remember, there is a lot of upside in not knowing the answer to a question, and the secret is coming prepared with a response that shows you are thoughtful and eager to follow up with the answer.


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