Over the course of your workday, how many questions do you suppose you are asked? It probably varies, but my guess is that it’s not an insignificant number. Of all those questions asked, it’s inevitable that there will be times you don’t know the answer. It would be a pretty unreasonable expectation that you should know everything, so there is no need to stress or panic in situations where an answer escapes you.
In fact, Jodi Glickman, author of the book, “Great on the Job: What to Say, How to Say It. The Secrets of Getting Ahead,” has a three-step strategy for carefully handling these situations. She suggests explaining what you know first, then what it is you do not know, and finally stating how you will figure it out.
The first step is providing context you are sure of that is related to the question. You may have observed examples of this before in the media. Often times when politicians give interviews on television news programs, they will end up answering the question they wish they had been asked. It gives them the opportunity to stay on message and showcase something they are confident about, particularly if they don’t know the answer to the question the interviewer has posed. Many candidates and officials are able to do this in a subtle way that still contributes meaningfully to the discussion. However, other times it is noticeable, derailing and downright frustrating. Consider this caution: don’t follow the latter example. It is very important that what you share is helpful to the person who asked the question, and is not intended to just be a way for you to impress them.
In step two, it’s best to be honest and communicate that you do not have the answer. Giving information you’re unsure of just to cover yourself in the moment could end up being disastrous if it turns out that what you said was inaccurate. It is much better to confess not knowing than have to deal with the consequences of others working upon the basis of false information.
Lastly, you will want to immediately offer to find the needed information and propose a timeframe and method (e.g., e-mail, phone, etc.) for follow up so that they know exactly what to expect. Ensure that you get back to the person in as timely a fashion as you can manage. Additionally, try not to pass off the responsibility unless necessary. Although you may have clearly delegated the task of following up to another co-worker, the person who asked the question doesn’t know that, so if your co-worker forgets to respond, that person’s disappointment will be directed at you.
Being questioned on the spot and not having the answer can feel embarrassing at times, but that can be overcome with a little confidence in yourself and practice with the three-step strategy described above.