Every once in a while we’ll be asked questions that we don’t know the answer to. It could be a complex question in front of a large group of people or a brief query from your mentor. Failing to have the answer at your fingertips can be upsetting. No one likes to look stupid in front of their boss, co-workers or friends. To cope with this feeling, many people make things worse by making up an answer, theorizing at length or dodging the question. This can be damaging to your reputation and is a waste of everyone’s time.
The first thing you can do to avoid this embarrassing situation is be prepared. This may seem obvious, but you’d be surprised by the number of people who show up to a meeting without reading the agenda, minutes or considering the possible topics of discussion.
If you’ve done your homework in preparation for a meeting and still get hit with a doozy of a question, take a second or two to assess what they’re asking and why they’re asking it. Too often, people jump into a conversation and bombard the discussion with a range of anecdotes and interesting (but sometimes irrelevant) segues. Worse, sometimes you can provide an answer that’s not only false but also harms your objective in that meeting. If you aren’t entirely clear about what the questioner is asking you, take a moment to consider it.
Remember this helpful acronym: WAIT – it stands for Why Am I Talking?
If you need to, repeat back what you think your interrogator is looking for by framing your opening like:
“I just want to clarify what you are saying. From where I’m sitting you are looking to…..” or “Hmmm. This is an interesting question – I gather you are asking this because you want to understand …”
Framing up the issue and repeating the question can be very helpful particularly in conflict issues (as discussed in the great negotiation book Getting to Yes) or when you’re trying to understand where another party is coming from. This can be helpful in particularly in emotional and conflict-escalating situations as discussed by my former supervisor Deputy Superintendent Jordan Tinney, who recently wrote about on his blog.
You may be surprised that repeating this question can help re-frame what the issue is and help you understand what information your interrogator is looking for. It’s also great for helping your interrogator understand how you intend to answer their question.
If all this fails and you still don’t have a clue about how to answer their question, it’s ok to say, “I don’t know the answer to that question, but I will find the answer as soon as I can.” But with a few caveats:
- Make sure to provide them with your thoughts on the situation and how you intend to solve the problem. Explain (as efficiently as possible) why the question is complex and how you plan on answering it
- Provide a timeline – explain what steps you will take and when you plan on responding to them with an answer.
By clarifying, considering, re-framing (if necessary) and if all else fails, explaining that you don’t know but will get the answer, your response will be valued by your peers and superiors.