Responding to Questions that You Cannot Answer

There are times in our careers when someone poses a question that we cannot answer. It could be in a meeting, in a business presentation, in an informal conversation, in a class, in an interview, or in a sales call.

What to Bear in Mind While Handling Questions

  1. Take every question as a learning opportunity for yourself.
  2. Be as curious as the person asking the question.
  3. Put yourself in the position of sharing what you know and your experience.
  4. You don’t have to know everything. But…
  5. If you don’t know something because you didn’t do your homework, then it is better to humbly accept the correction than to defend your mistake.

Why You Cannot Answer

  1. You don’t know the answer because you have not gathered the information on the subject.
  2. You only know the answer partially, and you don’t want to cause a misunderstanding.
  3. You know the answer, but it is not in your authority to divulge the information.
  4. You have never been in the situation.
  5. The question is outside your field of expertise.

Ways to respond

1. If you don’t know the answer, you can candidly say, “I don’t know,” or you can use the diplomatic version, “I am afraid I don’t have that information right now.” Being honest is better than making up an answer which could later be proved to be wrong. But don’t stop there. Keep your credibility intact by taking responsibility to find out the answer. Add, “But I will contact [name a specific person or department] today, and I will give you the information at [give a deadline].”

If you’re in a face-to-face situation, feel free to pick up your phone and shoot an email or message right there and then to ask for the answer. This will demonstrate that you take the matter seriously and win rapport with the person.

2. If you only know the answer partially, it is better to not answer directly. You can say something in the line of, “I am afraid I don’t know the whole story. Let me check with [name the person] and I will get back to you at [set a deadline].” Or if you don’t want to appear to be out of the loop by saying that you don’t know, you can give a disclaimer. “As far as I know from the last time I spoke to Bill, the situation is [tell the little information that you have]. But that may have changed in the past three days. Let me give you an update at [set a deadline].”

3. If it is not within your authority to give the answer, you can say, “I am afraid I cannot answer that. Please wait for [name the authorized person] to brief you.” Out of respect to the organization, it is advisable to avoid answering this kind of question yourself.

4. If you have not been in the situation that is in question, you can offer an example of a similar situation. “Unfortunately I have not taken part in such projects. But three years ago I was involved in a so-and-so project, which is in principle similar to the one you’re asking. From that experience, I can share that…” If it happens in your presentation, to make the discussion even more valuable, after sharing your answer, you can ask the rest of the audience to contribute their experience.

5. If the question is outside of your field of expertise, you can invite a more qualified member of the audience to give their view on the subject. Say, “That question is very relevant to the financial side of this project. Cathy, since you are in charge of the finances, would you care to take this one?”

If you are asked this question in an interview, it is better to honestly admit the truth. But you can add value to the interview by sharing your own experience related to the question. Say, “Unfortunately in my past jobs I am more involved in the user experience design and I am not trained in programming. However, from what I learned during the app development projects, challenges that programmers often face are…”

Please share in the comments if you know other tactics in handling questions you cannot answer.