The beginning of wisdom might be the statement, “I don’t know,” but a direct admission isn’t the best look in a career setting. Whether you’re trying to answer an interview question, provide insight to your team, or be looked at as a leader, there will be times you aren’t sure of the right answer. But don’t shrug it off with an IDK.
You won’t always have the right answers but don’t rush in your response. If you’re truly stumped, take a moment to ponder and come back with one of these more constructive alternatives.
Admit you don’t have enough information on the topic
We live in a world where everyone has an opinion on everything, even when they are woefully uninformed. While this can lead to a confident answer, there isn’t always value in that answer.
By admitting you aren’t an expert on a topic, it’s showing thoughtfulness. You don’t want to answer just to fill the silence, and you don’t want to bamboozle anyone with your answer. While “I don’t know” can sound lazy or knee-jerk, this response can sound thoughtful. BioSpace’s Alina Zahid says one of the worst things you can do is try to fake being an expert when you know nothing about the topic.
“You can say something along the lines of, “I haven’t dealt with a situation like that before, but I would start by asking these questions…” You could also try something like, “That concept or situation is new to me. I’ll have to look into it a bit more.”” –Triple Crown
Ask clarifying questions
However, if you take a moment to break down the question, you might find a way to give a plausible, truthful answer. This is especially useful when you’re put on the spot. By taking a deep breath and breaking the question into more manageable pieces or asking follow-up questions, you might arrive at a better answer.
Indeed says to start by repeating or paraphrasing the question. By saying it out loud, you might be able to demystify the question. But perhaps you’re tripped up on the context or on a specific verbiage. You can politely ask for clarification or a specific example. This can make the question more manageable or give you more time to consider the problem. And you’ll look thoughtful and thorough in the process.
“That’s an interesting question. So that I understand exactly what you’re looking for, do you mind unpacking the question a little more?” –Alina Zahid
Find something you do know
With some clarification, you likely can find something you know within the greater context of the question. You might not have the entire answer, but you should have enough to get somewhere.
The Muse’s Adrian J. Hopkins says that this type of lack of knowledge will often come from something you simply haven’t had experience with. Consider how the experiences you do have could relate to the problem and find a meaningful answer from there.
Zippia’s Maddie Lloyd says that when all else fails, have a fail-safe. Having something you can redirect the question to can give you a little more power and show expertise. If you’re in an interview, you can mention similar skills you think are relevant to the company. You can also use this chance to express enthusiasm for the topic and a willingness to learn.
“Questions that call for definitions or understanding of concepts that you don’t know can’t just be worked through on the spot. For these questions, lean on the research you’ve done about the company and industry the position is in.” – Lily Zhang, The Muse
Point to an expert
This one might not be terribly relevant in an interview setting, but if you’re at work and don’t have the knowledge you need to help with a problem, you might know someone who does! If it’s an issue of needing the knowledge more so than you being the one with that knowledge, don’t be afraid to utilize an expert you know.
Adrian J. Hopkins says this one is tough because it’s openly admitting you don’t have any answer, but it shows protectiveness and confidence that an answer can be found. This can show how resourceful you are, and being viewed as someone with a deep network is never a bad thing. Just be sure to thank your expert (and maybe apologize for putting them on the spot later).
Taking taking the time to pause, look at the context, and think about what you do know, you can come up with a much more helpful response than a mere, “I don’t know.” You aren’t disguising that lack of knowledge—instead, you’re finding a solution to obtain that knowledge. We all have lapses in our knowledge or can simply panic on the spot, but there’s a way to turn the situation into a positive.