What do you do when someone asks you something unexpected?
Answer the question!
Sounds simple, right? But fielding unexpected questions can be a nerve-wracking challenge for many people.
Whether the question comes during Q&A (you can and should prepare for Q&A, but you can never anticipate everything that might be asked), in a meeting (“So, Jake, how’s that project coming along?”); or anywhere else (elevator? water cooler?), it’s all too easy to get thrown and stammer out something… anything.
Why Is It Sometimes Hard to Answer the Question?
For many of us, the reason has nothing to do with the question itself, or the place in which it’s asked.
- We think we should know everything…
- And be able to express it “perfectly”…
- Even though we’re speaking off the cuff…
- And even when the situation is politically or emotionally charged.
Like I often say to my speaker coaching clients, good luck with that!
Feelings that we should be perfect — or worse, that we’re about to be unmasked as inadequate — can be really distracting, particularly for those of us who are heavily focused on our feelings to begin with.
But feelings aren’t a reliable guide to reality.
(Ever been afraid when you weren’t in actual danger? If you’ve given a speech, the answer is yes!)
Just because you feel uptight, upset, or on the spot about a question doesn’t mean you can’t answer it well!
To Answer the Question, Focus on Reality
Generally, when you’re asked a question, one of three things is true:
- You know the answer;
- You don’t know the answer, but you have a good idea of how to find it; or
- You’re completely clueless about the answer, and maybe the entire topic.
- If your question is, “Jezra, who can benefit public from speaking coaching?” I know the answer. (“Everyone.”)
- If the question is, “Jezra, what’s the circumference of the earth?” I don’t know the answer, but I know how to find out. (“Would you like me to Google that and get back to you?”)
- If the question is, “How many players are on a hockey team?,” I literally don’t have a clue. I know that Wayne Gretzky was considered a great hockey player, and that’s literally everything I know about hockey. (“I don’t know.”)
See how this works? When you’re asked a question, there are only three things that can happen, too. Either:
- You answer the question (because you know the answer);
- You offer to find out (because you are pretty sure you can get the answer and want to do that for the questioner); or
- You don’t know the answer (and you say so, using language that works for you).
How to Answer the Question by Saying “I Don’t Know”
In low-stakes situations, most of us can get the words “I don’t know” out of our mouths. But they can become really hard to say when the stakes are high, or when we feel embarrassed by our lack of knowledge.
That’s why it’s useful to come up with an “I don’t know” equivalent, and practice saying it now, in advance, so that the phrase (or strategy) comes easily to mind when you need it. (And by “practice,” I mean say the words out loud, repeatedly, until you feel comfortable saying them!)
Here are some “I don’t know” equivalent phrases and strategies to get you started:
“That’s an interesting question. What do you think?” (Strategy: Toss the ball back to your questioner.)
“That’s an interesting question. Does anyone here want to speak to it?” (Strategy: Toss the ball out to everyone present.)
“Let me pass that question to [my boss, our CFO, someone who’s more qualified to answer it].” (Strategy: Toss the ball to a qualified third party.)
“I’m not familiar with that area.” (Then try to pass the ball to someone who is.)
“Could you repeat that differently?” (Useful when the question is obscure; maybe a clarification will help you find something to say.)
“Really? You’re going to ask me that?” (OK, this one’s probably not such a great idea.)
And of course, the best one of all (if stated in a calm and confident way),
“I don’t know.”
Confidently admitting that you don’t know something gives you credibility and strength, so don’t be afraid to try this out.
And speaking of confidence…
How to Answer the Question in a Calm, Confident, Way
As you know, attitude is a big factor in the success of any communication.
- If you speak with calm authority, people will usually respect what you say.
- If you speak with warmth and confidence, people will usually engage with what you say.
Mostly, if you’re trying to connect with people, they’ll be much more forgiving than you are towards yourself.
So whether you know an answer… don’t know, but can find out… or don’t have a clue what the answer is, try to stay calm, confident, and connected to your listener(s), no matter the words that you use to answer.
Because the point of communication is not to be perfect or to know everything.
The point of communication is to share what you do know, in the best way you can.