How to Say “I Don’t Know” Without Losing Face
Between my brother and me, we know everything. The answer to your last question… well, that’s one my brother knows.
In all jobs – especially remodeling – there will be times when you don’t know the answer to something. In and of itself, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. However, it can cause major problems for you and your company if not handled properly.
What’s the big deal?
In my first year with Remodelers Advantage, the president of the company, Victoria Downing, called me into her office and said she would like me to start speaking at our workshops.
Though I was flattered, the thought of standing in front of a room full of people to talk about marketing scared me. It’s not because I didn’t know my stuff. To the contrary. The whole reason she was asking me to speak was that I “knew my stuff.”
It wasn’t because I suffered from stage fright either. I didn’t become a stuttering, quivering mess the moment I walked out on stage.
No, the reason I was anxious (I later realized) was the fear that someone might ask me a question that I couldn’t answer. I mean, I am supposed to be the expert up there, right? Wouldn’t I lose all credibility if I couldn’t answer any and all questions hurled my way?
My trepidation eased the day of the workshop: immediately after having heard Judith Miller’s first session.
She’s fantastic. Arguably one of the top three financial minds in the remodeling industry. During that session, she didn’t have the answer not once, but twice.
I soon realized how silly I was being.
Judith’s expertise and credibility weren’t diminished in the least. In fact, it had the opposite effect. Her credibility was elevated. How is that possible?
In today’s post, I’ll share the why, the what and the how of saying I don’t know without losing face and sounding like a lost fool.
Why you can say it
Why did Judith’s inability to answer a question not negatively impact her credibility? Well, for one thing, she’s a very smart cookie. She wrote the book on QuickBooks for remodelers (literally), and she conveyed that knowledge throughout her presentations.
So the first point to be made here is that you can’t just be clueless all the time. These tips aren’t going to help you if you are unprepared and unknowledgeable.
As long as you’re in control and well informed most of the time you’ll be allowed to say I don’t know when the occasion arises.
Remember, there’s a big difference between not knowing everything and not knowing anything.
What to say
All that said, it’s rarely a good idea to just come right out and say, “I don’t know.” Intelligent, well-informed people handle the situation better than that. Here are a few ways to respond based on the three most common scenarios.
1. When you should know the answer but don’t
Let me be sure I understand your question. You want to know . . .
Restating the question is one of the best things you can do when you’re on the spot. It accomplishes two things: first, it buys you some time to either recall the answer or craft your response, and second it verifies you’ve got the question right. Sometimes this will result in a further clarification by the questioner which can help you recall the answer.
Based on what I know right now, my best-educated estimate is . . .
There’s a tendency by some to want to answer a question in full or not reply at all. Bad idea.
If you can contribute anything to the questioner, you should do so as soon as possible. Firstly, you’re not satisfying their need for information. But more importantly, you may end up dodging and avoiding the person until you know all the answers.
This can be very problematic–especially if the questioner is the client.
That’s good timing! I’m actually gathering that information right now. I should have an answer to you by . . .
This is a good way to show that although you don’t know the answer, you’re aware of the situation and are working on it. The key here is setting a “due date.” It reinforces in the questioner’s mind that this is something you are actively working on. Just be sure to be specific! Saying, “I’ll get back to you next week sometime,” will sound like you’re not in control or you’re blowing them off.
2. When it’s not something you should be expected to know.
Sometimes people just ask the wrong person. For example, if you’re the lead carpenter on a project and the homeowner asks you, “did you guys deposit my check yesterday?” It’s unlikely you would (or should) know the answer to that question. Here are a few ways to handle this situation.
Sorry, I’m not the best person to answer that. You should talk to ______. Would you like his number?
That’s not something I’m involved with, but if you like, I could make some calls and get that answer for you.
3. When you know just enough to be dangerous.
When someone asks you a question that’s not your area of expertise, but you have some knowledge about it, that’s when you can really get into trouble. The worst part about this situation is that many times you’re just trying to help by providing what little insight you have.
This is particularly common when the questioner is your boss or your client.
The best thing to do here is to use the responses outlined in the previous section; refer the questioner to the subject matter expert.
If, however, you’re determined to go down this path, you need to be sure to include “disclaimers” in your response, so the questioner is fully aware of your position on the matter. For example:
What I do know is ______, but I don’t know ________. I suggest you speak with ______.
Using this cadence protects the questioner from taking your response as gospel. The second part underscores that there are pieces of the puzzle that are missing (in other words they don’t have the whole picture), and the third part is giving them a resource. The questioner will greatly appreciate your honesty and eagerness to help.
How to say it
The one thing that all industry experts and thought leaders have in common is not only that they’re willing and able to say “I don’t know,” but how they say it.
Whenever you’re asked a question that stumps you, you must remain calm, cool and collected. Your body language and facial expression must convey as much.
And finally, your response – whatever it may be – should be delivered with confidence and class.
If you’re secure in yourself and your overall competence, then you will never diminish your credibility by not having the answer at your fingertips.
As I said earlier, the opposite is true.
Your audience (even an audience of one) knows deep down that you can’t possibly have every answer to every question. When you say I don’t know with confidence and class, they tap into that knowledge. What results is greater credibility and respect for you.
To this day, not one speaking engagement goes by where I’m not asked a question that catches me off guard. And it’s okay.
What about you?
Do you have any advice for saying I don’t know without sounding clueless? Please share your tips in the comments below!