What if someone asks you a question and you don’t know the answer?
I like to think of a question as a gift, too often “unwrapped” madly without appreciating the person giving it, why the particular gift was chosen, or without the reading the attached card first!
First of all, recognize that you will be asked questions, especially leaders or people in positions of real or perceived authority.
No one appreciates the person who acts like he or she knows the answers, but does not. “Know-It-Alls” are quickly dismissed by others. Don’t assume you’re NOT a Know-It-All; ask your friends, family and colleagues if you EVER come across this way. Recognize there is at least a kernel of truth in whatever feedback you receive. Use this information to shape your attitudes and behavior in the future.
Make sure you understand the question clearly before you answer. Repeat the question, paraphrase it, or ask for clarification.
Certainly feel free to answer the question based on your experience. If you are speaking as an authority, you should be able to back up your answer with facts, data and examples. Ask what else the person has done to seek an answer, if anything. Suggest further research and additional sources of information.
If you are not an expert in the subject of the question, say so quickly before giving a response based on your experience or opinion, and qualify your answer as such. Respond with your own question about who the person may know that might be an authority in the area, or refer them to such an authority who you know.
Don’t be so hasty to answer…
Even if you are an expert or authority in the subject of the question, giving away your “expert” answer immediately may not be the most helpful response. “There must be a reason you are asking…” Use this or a similar statement to get the person asking the question to say more. Or simply ask, “Could you say more about that?” or even, “What do you already know?” This achieves much: first, it will evoke context, more meaning and the underlying purpose of the question being asked. Second, you are teaching others how to ask great questions. Many people hold the answers to their own questions but ask others out of habit, self-doubt or the need for reassurance. Directing the question back at them encourages independent thinking, elicits a more precise or evocative question, and brings out their own hidden potential for innovation and solutions.
Perhaps the best way to answer any question, initially, is with a question of your own. The more you get a person asking a question to think and say more about their own question, before you answer, the more helpful a leader and coach you will be – and, the more likely you will provide a truly helpful response to the concern that is really behind the question. Michael J. Marquardt, in his book Leading with Questions: How Leaders Find the Right Solutions By Knowing What To Ask directs leaders to use questions to encourage participation and teamwork, foster outside-the-box thinking, empower others, build relationships with customers, solve problems, and much more.
The manner in which you respond to questions will define the quality and outcome of your leadership, including the degree to which you are developing other leaders around you.
How do you respond to people when they ask you questions? Please share your comments and suggestions.