What to Say When You Don’t Know An Answer to A Question at Work

It’s never a good feeling when you get asked a question that you can’t answer. But, life is full of those moments because we’re human and we can’t possibly know everything. So what should you say when you don’t know an answer? 

When it comes to the business world, no matter what position you hold, you’re going to have questions that you’ll have trouble answering. Responding “I don’t know” won’t really do you any favors. Generally people don’t want to hear that and it won’t put you in a good light. Instead, here are a few things to say instead when you’re having trouble answering a question.

First off, don’t lie. The only thing worse than saying you don’t know is responding with something that you know is false. Sometimes you’ll respond with a wrong answer, and that’s okay as long as it’s an honest mistake. Never make up an answer just so you have something to say. Not only is that morally wrong, but chances are it will come back to bite you.

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Here are three things to say instead:

  1. Let me discuss with my team and I’ll get back to you

This is a pretty tried and true answer and one of the easiest to give. However, it’s a good one to give when you don’t know an answer because it shows that you’re willing to get it. This answer buys you some time to talk to colleagues and do your research before giving a response.

2. I’d love to do some more research before I get you an answer

And speaking of research, this is another good, simple answer to give. This response shows that you care about giving accurate or detailed information. Again, it buys you time to get your ducks in a row and it makes you stand out as a person who does thoughtful work

3. Here’s what I do know and here’s how I’ll get you the rest

This is a very honest and very good response to give when you know some of the answer but perhaps not everything. So, if you give this response, answer what you do know and then be sure to explain what you don’t know but how you’ll get it. Be solution-focused — that solution might involve some of the other responses, such as discussing with team members or doing more research. This response let’s others know that you’re honest, you can admit that you don’t know everything, and that you’re willing to do the work to get the full answer.

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Here are 5 things to remember when you don’t know an answer:

Make sure you know what they’re asking

If you’re not quite sure what exactly they are asking or what they are looking for, it’s always okay to clarify. You could rephrase the question back to them or ask for further explanation before answering.

Take your time

You don’t have to rush into an answer. It’s perfectly fine, even when you’re on a call, to take a breath, compose yourself, and then answer. This often makes you look thoughtful and it shows that you’re really listening and absorbing what is being asked.

Watch your tone

It can be off putting to not know an answer. Sometimes that means we can be put on the defensive. Be sure that your tone is thoughtful, not aggressive or frustrated. 

This is a learning opportunity

Something to keep in mind is that this is an opportunity for you to learn something new and grow as a professional. It’s okay to not know everything and this is your chance to master a question. Next time it comes up, you’ll be ready.

Finally, always follow through

The last thing to remember is that you need to follow through when you say you’ll do more research or that you’ll get back to someone. It’s one thing to buy yourself some time with an answer, but you need to follow through. Whoever asked you the question is looking for your answer, otherwise they wouldn’t have asked. Be sure to always follow up with your answer in a timely fashion. If you said you’d have it tomorrow, get it to them tomorrow. It’s amazing how something as simple as following through will make you stand out.

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Eric Moore

Eric Moore is the owner of Overheard on Conference Calls. As a corporate veteran, he’s seen and heard it all. And when it comes to office chairs, desks, and accessories, he’s used it all. As a former office furniture sales rep, he bring his expertise to provide readers the knowledge to choose the right products for them. He also has his OSHA Ergonomics Certificate.