How to say “I don’t know” with confidence

How to say “I don’t know” with confidence

By Mark Harari

In all jobs – especially remodeling – there will be times when you don’t know the answer to something. In and of itself, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. However, it can cause major problems for you and your company if not handled properly.

What to say

When you should know the answer but don’t.

“Let me be sure I understand your question. You want to know . . . “

Restating the question is one of the best things you can do when you’re on the spot. It accomplishes two things: first, it buys you some time to either recall the answer or craft your response, and second it verifies you’ve got the question right. Sometimes this will result in a further clarification by the questioner which can help you recall the answer.

“Based on what I know right now, my best-educated estimate is . . .”

There’s a tendency by some to want to answer a question in full or not reply at all. Bad idea.

If you can contribute anything to the questioner, you should do so as soon as possible. Firstly, you’re not satisfying their need for information. But more importantly, you may end up dodging and avoiding the person until you know all the answers.

This can be very problematic–especially if the questioner is the client.

“That’s good timing! I’m actually gathering that information right now. I should have an answer to you by . . .”

This is a good way to show that although you don’t know the answer, you’re aware of the situation and are working on it. The key here is setting a “due date.” It reinforces in the questioner’s mind that this is something you are actively working on. Just be sure to be specific! Saying, “I’ll get back to you next week sometime,” will sound like you’re not in control or you’re blowing them off.

When it’s not something you should be expected to know.

Sometimes people just ask the wrong person. For example, if you’re the lead carpenter on a project and the homeowner asks you, “did you guys deposit my check yesterday?” It’s unlikely you would (or should) know the answer to that question. Here are a few ways to handle this situation.

“Sorry, I’m not the best person to answer that. You should talk to ______. Would you like his number?”

“That’s not something I’m involved with, but if you like, I could make some calls and get that answer for you.”

When you know just enough to be dangerous.

When someone asks you a question that’s not your area of expertise, but you have some knowledge about it, that’s when you can really get into trouble. The worst part about this situation is that many times you’re just trying to help by providing what little insight you have.

This is particularly common when the questioner is your boss or your client.

The best thing to do here is to use the responses outlined in the previous section; refer the questioner to the subject matter expert.

If, however, you’re determined to go down this path, you need to be sure to include “disclaimers” in your response, so the questioner is fully aware of your position on the matter. For example:

“What I do know is ______, but I don’t know ________. I suggest you speak with ______.”

Using this cadence protects the questioner from taking your response as gospel. The second part underscores that there are pieces of the puzzle that are missing (in other words they don’t have the whole picture), and the third part is giving them a resource. The questioner will greatly appreciate your honesty and eagerness to help.

How to say it

The one thing that all industry experts and thought leaders have in common is not only that they’re willing and able to say “I don’t know,” but how they say it.

Whenever you’re asked a question that stumps you, you must remain calm, cool and collected. Your body language and facial expression must convey as much.

And finally, your response – whatever it may be – should be delivered with confidence and class.

If you’re secure in yourself and your overall competence, then you will never diminish your credibility by not having the answer at your fingertips.

As I said earlier, the opposite is true.

Your audience (even an audience of one) knows deep down that you can’t possibly have every answer to every question. When you say I don’t know with confidence and class, they tap into that knowledge. What results is greater credibility and respect for you.

To this day, not one speaking engagement goes by where I’m not asked a question that catches me off guard. And it’s okay.

Mark Harari is the director of marketing for Remodelers Advantage.


Sexton Group Ltd