What if someone asks you a question and you don’t know the answer?
First of all, recognize that this will happen, especially of 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.
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 and data. 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 knows that might be an authority in the area, or refer them to such an authority who you know.
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 this question.” 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?” This achieves much: first, it will evoke context, more meaning and the underlying purpose of the question being asked. Second, 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 and brings out their own hidden potential for innovation and solutions.
Before you answer a question:
The more you get the person who is asking a question to think and say more about their question, the more helpful a leader and coach you will be. And, the more likely you will provide a truly helpful response.
Directing the question back at them encourages independent thinking and brings out their own hidden potential for innovation and solutions.