What Intelligent People Say Instead of “I Don’t Know”
I once asked my doctor why it hurts here (pretend you know where I’m pointing). His answer: “I don’t know.” At first, I was miffed by that response. Then I realized, no one can know everything, even a specialist, and it’s better that he admitted not knowing than pretending to know something he didn’t. Having acknowledged that he didn’t have the answer, he could start asking questions to diagnose the situation.
It takes a certain level of self-confidence to admit to not knowing something when people view you as the expert. Still, if you really don’t know the answer and you (or others) think you should, you may have some options other than saying, “I don’t know.”
For example, if a customer asks a question you can’t answer, you can say, “Let me check on that and get right back to you,” then scurry to find someone who can help you. If it’s a question during a job interview about a skill you don’t have, you might be able to redirect the question to a comparable skill you do have.
If you’re a leader who gets a question from a subordinate that you can’t answer, you might turn it back to the person as an assignment to figure out the answer. In one fell swoop, it becomes the subordinate’s responsibility, and you don’t have to figure it out yourself. And if your CEO springs a surprise question on you that you can’t answer, try, “I know who has the answer to that question, and I’ll get back to you with it pronto.” Then, of course, do just that.
Other alternatives to “I don’t know” include “Good question. Let me find out for you,” “Based on what we currently know, I’d say ...” and “I don’t have the data at my fingertips, but I’ll get the full report to you by end of business today.”
These responses might feel awkward when you think you ought to know the answer. The key is to remain calm and sound confident. To that end, it couldn’t hurt to practice some of these responses before situations arise when you might need them.
By the way, one of the traits of highly intelligent people is being unafraid to admit they don’t know something. Keep that in mind the next time someone stumps you with a question you can’t answer.