Stumped? How to answer a question you don’t know the answer to

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By Jodi Glickman, author of “Great on the Job: What to Say, How to Say It. The Secrets of Getting Ahead.”
Have you ever been working away diligently at your desk only to be interrupted by your manager with an urgent or important question to which you don’t know the answer? Or, have you ever had a conversation with your boss where she (of course!) asks about the one and only aspect of a project or deal you’re not up to speed on?

Who among us hasn’t been caught with our proverbial pants down, put on the spot and forced to admit ignorance or concede defeat in terms of not being as all-knowing as we profess to be? We’ve all been there. We’re smart,  on-the-ball, competent professionals.  Yet invariably, someone wants to know about something we just don’t know about or have the answer to.

When you’re put on the spot and find yourself stumbling over an answer, there’s a foolproof strategy to help you out of the situation. When you’re asked a question you don’t know the answer to, the best way to show how smart and capable you really are is to use the following Great on the Job three-step strategy:

1.    Here’s what I  know.

2.    Here’s what I don’t  know.

3.    Here’s how I’ll figure it  out.

Here’s what I know
Julie [whose last name is withheld for anonymity’s sake] was a brand manager working on the Dove soap brand at a large consumer products company. One day, her boss, Michael, stopped by to find out where the market share of Dial, Dove’s main competitor, had closed for the month. Julie didn’t know.

Julie did know, however, that Dial’s recent marketing campaign had been declared a flop and that the company was revamping its packaging — two issues that would certainly have hurt its market share in the  near term. Instead of getting flustered and telling Michael she didn’t know the answer to his question, Julie responded as follows:

“Michael, Dial’s recent marketing campaign wasn’t  well-received, and they’re also reworking their packaging. I’m sure they’re numbers will be trending downward as a result this  month. …”

Here’s what I don’t know
After giving Michael some background information and context around the issue, Julie then acknowledged that she didn’t have the latest market-share numbers. Julie didn’t try to fake it or make up an answer. Rather, she acknowledged that she didn’t have the exact information her boss was looking for and then immediately offered to get the information for him. Importantly, Julie did this after showing her boss that she was actually knowledgeable about her competitor product and did have something of value to add to the conversation (i.e., she knew about their latest marketing campaign and new packaging).

“I actually don’t have their latest market share numbers,  however. …”

Here’s how I’ll figure it out
Finally, after giving her boss the best information she had regarding Dial, Julie then offered to get market-share information ASAP.

“Let me go take a look at the data and come back to you with the numbers right away. Would you like me to shoot you an email or stop by your office?”

Or, if Julie knew the latest market-share numbers weren’t yet available, she could have told Michael the date she expected to have the information and then let him know when she would follow up.

What if I really should know the answer?
Sometimes the question you’re being asked isn’t one you can recover from easily without looking like you’re out of the loop. If you’re asked an easy or obvious question in a meeting and all eyes fall to you, the best way to handle it is with the following:

·   “Jon, that’s a great question and I really should know the answer, but I actually don’t know  off-hand. Let me follow up after the meeting and I’ll come back to you.”

·   “You know what? I’m so sorry, but I thought I had that information, but I don’t. I’ll do some research after we finish up here and send you an email as soon as I figure it out.”

At the end of the day, you’re probably a smart, competent and capable professional. And while you can’t be expected to know everything, your goal is to not sound as if you don’t know anything.

Using the “here’s what I know, here’s what I don’t know, here’s how I’ll figure it out” strategy will show your manager or team that you’re in the loop and on top of it. If and when you don’t have full or complete information, you’re always willing to go get it.  And often, you do have something else of value to contribute.

Jodi Glickman is the founder of communication training firm Great on the Job and author of “Great on the Job: What to Say, How to Say It, The Secrets of Getting Ahead (St. Martin’s Press, May 2011). She is also a regular contributor to Harvard Business Review. You can follow her on Twitter at @greatonthejob.


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