How to Say "I Don't Know" At Work

How to Say "I Don't Know" At Work

It’s not easy to admit that you don’t know something, and this is particularly true when you’re asked something at work. Whether you’re a brand new employee or you’re a seasoned veteran in the workplace, you’re going to be in a position where you don’t know the answer to a question. Most people freeze up or react poorly, and this comes with consequences. Before you find yourself struggling in this situation, you should prepare yourself. There’s a right way to say, “I don’t know.”

Why It’s So Difficult

For a variety of reasons, it’s human nature to be embarrassed about not knowing an answer. Some people feel inferior if they don’t have an answer, while others worry that they’ll lose their job. In any case, it’s common for adults to try to answer questions they don’t know the answer to.

In reality, trying to answer a question you don’t know the answer to could cause more harm than good. But that doesn’t stop people from making up answers or guessing. Some corporations have cultures that make employees feel pressured to know the answer to every question. So, whatever your reason may be for wanting to answer a question you don’t know the answer to, you’re not alone.

Ultimately, people expect leaders to have flaws. They want their leaders to have an open mind and to be brave. When a leader says, “I don’t know,” they’re seen as more human. By telling co-workers, subordinates, and managers the truth, you could actually improve your career.

How and When to Say “I Don’t Know”

If you’re worried about not knowing the answer to a question, you can put your fears to rest. There are several steps you can take to make sure you say, “I don’t know,” without destroying your career or making others lose confidence in you. The way in which you answer a question should depend on the situation. Here are a few scenarios and how you should phrase your answer for each one.

It’s Not Your Area

If someone asks you a question but it doesn’t pertain to your current role, it’s acceptable to explain that. You can say, “I’m not the best person to answer that.” Sometimes, people assume that you know about outside projects or other departments. In this situation, you don’t show any weakness by explaining that you don’t know. There may be no possible way for you to answer this question, so feel free to point them in the right direction.

By telling the individual who they should ask, you make a positive impression. You show the person asking that you care and that you have enough knowledge to get them the answer they need. If possible and necessary, you should give the person asking the question the contact information for the appropriate person.

It’s important to note that, at times, you might know the answer to a question that you shouldn’t answer. If you overheard the answer or you know it’s a complicated situation, you can use this same response. Tell the individual, “I’m not the best person to answer that, but X is.” By giving this response, you avoid overstepping or causing a conflict. You can allow someone else to field the question and you don’t need to risk saying the wrong thing.

When a Question is Unrelated

It’s not uncommon for meetings to go off track. If you’re speaking in a group setting and someone asks a completely unrelated question, you may not want to answer it for two reasons. Firstly, you might not be prepared to answer the question. And secondly, you don’t want to derail your discussion.

In this type of situation, you have every right to say that you don’t know the answer. However, you should do so tactfully. You can say, “Here’s what I can tell you.” After that statement, you can refocus the conversation on the relevant matters. It allows you to continue with your presentation without stumbling and without wasting time. Even better, this answer doesn’t make you seem any less knowledgeable because you’re not admitting to not knowing.

When You Should Know the Answer

Let’s face it, you’re not perfect. There could be multiple reasons you don’t know the answer to a question you should be able to respond to. If you had a bad week, have a momentary lapse, or didn’t do enough research, you may not know a response to a question. This is one of the most difficult situations.

Once again, a simple, “I don’t know,” isn’t the best answer. If you want to sound as if you’re taking steps in the right direction, you can say, “That’s what I’m trying to find out.” With this response, you show that you know you should know the answer and that you’re actively looking for one.

If there’s more to the story, you can explain the situation in a follow-up text or email. Consider this scenario. You haven’t processed all of the data from a recent project. If someone asks you for specifics, you can explain that you haven’t processed the exact numbers but that you’ll have an answer next week. Giving a timeline for an answer should put their mind at ease and give you more credibility.

Whatever you say, you should be somewhat honest. If you come up with a long-winded explanation or wrongly place the blame on someone else, you jeopardize your career. In most cases, honesty is the best policy.

Preparing Yourself for the Situation

If you know that you’re unprepared for a presentation or someone asks you a question in an email, you have some time to prepare your answer. Before you start to stress, take a deep breath. Give yourself a quick pep talk and remind yourself of your value. If you are confident and professional in your response, you have a better chance of making a good impression.

In the end, saying “I don’t know” is sometimes the appropriate answer to a question. In reality, your honesty could boost your career.

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