GASP! When You Don't Know the Answer

Uncategorized Sep 09, 2020

Let’s face it: We are smart people. We wouldn’t be considered professionals if we weren’t. We were hired to have good answers, and we usually get paid good money to provide those answers at the appropriate time.


But every now and then, someone throws us a curve ball. Or something comes from so far out of left field that we are left wondering “where in the heck did THAT come from!?”


How we handle those moments can make or break our credibility for the future, so tread carefully.


Sarcasm is usually not appropriate, as tempting as it might be.  So refrain from the “does anyone have any good questions?” response! Or the “do I look like the budget guy?”


Perhaps a “can you help me understand what’s behind that question?” answer might be more helpful. Let them do some talking, which helps you understand more context AND gives you a few seconds to think.


Or the drop back and punt “I’m sorry, I’m not familiar with the budget aspects. I can get with budgeting and get back to you, or put you in touch with them directly, if you prefer.”


And non-verbals matter, too, so no eye rolling (at least visibly).


Another bad idea is trying to BS your way through an answer using big, technical jargon.


“I’m sorry but the response time can’t be any shorter than .02 nanoseconds because the flux capacitor has to discharge or it will ignite the plasma and cause an unexpected thermal event in the primary and tertiary circuits.”


A better response might be “At this time, we are unable to get the response time to less than .02 nanoseconds.”


This next part might seem obvious, but it needs to be said. You can add more, but only if it’s true! “We are looking at some new materials that may decrease response time, however that is in the early stages of research.” Or “it’s our understanding that the requirement was a response time of .02 nanoseconds.”


The basic premise is to be truthful here. Most people have a decent BS detector and you don’t want to set that off and ruin your integrity for future encounters.


Probably the hardest curve ball to deal with is a detailed question that comes from a particularly respected person. And they have a good point. 


It’s when you have a “deer in the headlights” moment because, dang it!, you should have thought of that!


My advice is to own it with enthusiasm. It shows you are more focused on a good result rather than your ego and are willing to be open-minded.


A couple second pause, a couple of eye blinks while you are processing and then a genuine statement about the question or idea that was given.  “You know, I hadn’t considered that!  It’s actually not a bad idea…I have to think on it some more, and I’ll get back to you on that.  Would you be willing to talk more offline?”


These are just a few examples of things that may come up.  The bottom line is that it is partly WHAT you say, but it is far more about HOW you say it!


Here’s the 6 step process:

  1. Pause for a moment so you can think instead of react
  2. Process who is asking and what position they hold
  3. Ask for more context with a “help me understand” statement
  4. Answer with truth and not “spin”
  5. Watch your tone of voice and your body language
  6. Promise follow-up and then... follow-up!


I hate to break it to you, but as brilliant as you are, you don’t know everything! How you handle those moments when that fact becomes obvious to others, matters.


It’s better to have your character be strong by admitting and rectifying knowledge gaps than it is to fake being right, be proved wrong and have your character take a beating.


Leaving you with this from the lighter side:

I need to take a nap.  Who knew that being right and perfect all the time was so exhausting?


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