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

At some point during your work week, someone is going to ask you for information you don’t have.  There are some people (I don’t happen to be one of them) who hate to say “I don’t know.”  For some reason, it makes them feel stupid, or out of touch.  I never worry about that. I know lots of things, so missing an answer at any given time doesn’t make me feel dumb.  In fact, it’s why I almost never use “I don’t know” by itself; I think of it as an incomplete sentence.  “I don’t know, but I’ll find out” is my idea of a complete sentence.

Jodi Glickman is the author of “Great on the Job: What to Say, How to Say It” and she offers readers a step by step guide to success by saying the right things.  Glickman offers scripts for getting things done at work, asking for help and managing priorities.  They’re good scripts; as a manager, I can vouch for her expertise in guiding workers toward more successful outcomes.  Here’s her formula for success when you have to answer a question that you don’t have the answer to.

Step One:  Tell them what you know. In fact, that’s a great opening for this script: “Here’s what we know right now: we have 45 confirmed attendees and most of the board has indicated that they’ll come.”

Step Two: Tell them what you don’t know. “I don’t have a list of which board members have absolutely committed yet, and which ones will be calling in via conference call.”

Step Three: Tell them how you’ll figure it out, then how you’ll close the loop. “I’ll get the final list this afternoon from Joan – she’s making her last calls today.  Then I’ll email you the RSVP list.”

As Glickman writes, “Wikipedia was founded on the notion that nobody knows everything, but everybody knows something.”  Don’t feel bad that you don’t have every detail of every project stored in your brain.  Being transparent and proactive will help your (client / boss/ team member) be patient while you get the answer.  If you really don’t have any data, general information can be helpful: “The trend has been up over the last month, but I’m not sure where we ended the week.  I’ll get the sales figures and call you back this afternoon.”  “Last time I looked, about 75 percent of the report was finished; I’ll check on the last portion and call you by the end of the week.”

One thing Glickman (and I) warn against: guessing or making up something so you sound like you know more than you do.  If you have a good feel for the information (last time I looked, it was almost finished) say so.  If you really have no idea, don’t guess. Having to correct a figure may be disappointing –  and may also be hard to do.  You risk your (client / boss / team member) passing on the inaccurate information to a number of people; that may mean that two conflicting pieces of data are circulating out there.

Having a good reason for not knowing the exact answer can actually help your case.  “I know we did well last month (sales were up five percent) and we’re running a new coupon campaign this week.  I thought I’d check on this month’s numbers after the campaign finishes Friday.”

Glickman thinks that the best formula always starts with the positive (what we do know) and sandwiching any negative (what we don’t know) with a positive finish (I’ll get back to you.) Starting with the negative risks losing your (client / boss/ team member) if they are prone to getting stuck on negatives (“Why wouldn’t you have the latest figures?  The report came out a week ago!”) If you should know the answer, but simply don’t, Glickman’s advice is to fall on your sword early and get right to Step Three.  “I just haven’t had time to get to the numbers, but I’ll do it right now.  I’ll have the answer for you in an hour.”

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