How To Answer A Question Without Knowing The Answer

answer question when you're unpreparedWe've all been there. It's Friday afternoon and work is winding down. You're sitting in your cube, watching a YouTube video of a bunny kissing a squirrel and jamming to your "Friday Fun" iTunes playlist. Just as you're about to press "share" on that cute/creepy bunny video, your boss stops by and asks you for a quick recap of your client's latest earnings report. You're completely caught off guard, and all you manage to mumble is, "Um, uh, I'm actually not sure about that ... um, sorry."

After your boss walks away, your face turns from fire-engine red back to its normal hue and your brain starts functioning again, you kick yourself because you do know the answer. Well, sort of. The other day you'd read a summary from the earnings call and you remember some of the details, or at least enough to have pieced together a more coherent response.

Unless you're one of those lucky (some might say annoying) people who always has the right answer or has mastered the art of sounding like you know what you're talking about even if you don't have a clue, then you have been or will be faced with similar situations where you aren't fully prepared. But chances are, even if you don't have the full answer, you do know enough to share some information and then follow up once you know more. This way, you show your boss that you do have something of value to contribute, while still being honest about not knowing everything.

According to Jodi Glickman, author of "Great on the Job: What to Say, How to Say It. The Secrets of Getting Ahead," answering a question you don't know with intelligence boils down to a simple three-part strategy:

1. Here's what I know.

The first thing to remember is that you aren't expected to know everything about every topic at all times. Given how busy we are these days, it's nearly impossible to always have an answer on the tip of your tongue. According to Glickman, if the question is related to something you're working on or should be familiar with, you likely do know something -- and that something is worth contributing. So instead of just going straight to, "I don't know, sorry," take a second to collect your thoughts and provide your boss with the fact or tidbit you do know.

2. Here's what I don't know.

"After you've given your client or boss a little something to work with, then be transparent and admit that you don't know the answer or have that exact piece of information," writes Glickman. I know sometimes it's easy, when caught off guard, to make something up, but it'll only hurt you in the long run. Your boss would much rather you be honest and plead ignorance than find out later your client didn't actually acquire a new company as you'd told him in your attempt to sound smart. Lying will just ruin your credibility. Instead of dancing around it, simply tell her you aren't completely sure.

3. Here's how I'll figure it out.

While you aren't expected to know everything, you are expected to do what you can to figure out the answer, even if it requires taking some time to research and pull the right information. Step three of Glickman's strategy suggests closing the conversation by proactively offering your game plan -- you'll do some digging and get back to her. It might help to ask for her deadline or if there's anything else she'd like to know while you're looking -- that way you ensure that when you do get your boss the answer, you get it to them on time and with no missing pieces.

Notes Glickman, this method works well because it allows you to bury the negative (that you don't know what you're talking about) in between two positives. "The idea of 'sandwiching' the bad news between the good news ensures that you start off and end on a solid footing."

Here's an example of how you can apply this strategy to the above situation:

  1. Here's what I know. "I do know sales for X client are up from last quarter."
  2. Here's what I don't know. "However, I don't know the exact sales numbers for this quarter off the top of my head."
  3. Here's how I'll figure it out. "So let me go back to the earnings release, double check the numbers, and get back to you. When do you need this information by?"

So the next time your boss stops by unannounced, take a deep breath, remain calm and use this three-part strategy to confidently (kind of) answer the question you (sort of, but not really) know the answer to.

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