Saying “I don’t know” when you don’t, in fact, know the answer to a question should be laudable. It should tell people you’re a straight shooter—not someone who fudges an answer when you’re unsure.
But, let’s be honest: In many workplace situations, it just doesn’t sound good—and can make you come across as inexperienced, unprofessional, or (especially) unprepared.
So, what should you do instead? The best course of action is to employ a phrase that avoids misleading the other person, but still makes him or her feel like you answered the question. Read on for three phrases you can use in place of “I don’t know” and the best times to use each one.
When it’s Not Your Area of Expertise:
“I’m Not Sure I’m the Best Person to Answer That”
Sometimes, you don’t know the answer to a question because there’s no earthly way you could. Just because you work at a given company doesn’t mean you know the ins and outs of a project two departments over. Even within your own department, sometimes you don’t have the background or expertise to answer everything (nor, frankly, should you).
However, responding “I don’t know,” probably won’t do the person seeking answers any favors—or make you look any better. A smarter option? Say, “I’m not sure I’m the best person to answer that,” then follow up with the appropriate referral to your boss, another department, or whoever can better answer the question.
This approach also works when you do have an answer, but you probably shouldn’t be talking about it (e.g., you accidentally overheard the information, you were given it in confidence, or you know that it’s a dicey topic). “I’m not sure I’m the best person to answer that” is a non-awkward response that saves you from any political landmines—and encourages the other person to drop it.
When Someone Asks an Unrelated Question:
“Here’s What I Can Tell You”
It can be incredibly frustrating when you know all of the pertinent information for a particular meeting and project—and yet you find yourself saying, “I don’t know” because people start asking questions with little relevance to the matter at hand (and because, well, you don’t want to say, “seriously?” to the higher-ups).
This is the perfect time to employ, “Here’s what I can tell you.” It works like this: When someone asks, say, how the program you’re proposing for one target group of people impacts another, say, “We haven’t studied working parents, but here’s what I can tell you: Seniors, who the grant designated as the target audience, responded favorably in our initial studies.”
This strategy not only brings the discussion back on topic—it makes sure all of your hard work and research doesn’t go to waste.
When You Should Know (But Don’t):
“That’s Exactly What I'm Seeking to Answer”
It happens: You’re behind in your research, your mind has gone blank, or for whatever reason, you’re unable to answer a question you’re expected to know (like, “how did the last advertising campaign go?”—when you’re the marketing manager).
In place of “I don’t know” try, “That’s exactly what I’m seeking to answer”—a response that makes it clear that you’re right there with your boss, client, or whoever’s asking and that an answer is forthcoming.
If that feels incomplete, continue to answer in broad strokes and promise the exact facts and figures in a follow-up email: “Initial numbers showed that it was performing well, but I still need to pull the exact figures. I can send them to you by the end of the week.”
This way, you’re still putting a premium on giving an accurate answer (by not accidentally guessing wrong) but not worrying anyone by saying “I don’t know” to what should be a basic question.
At work (and in life), honesty is always the best policy, but that doesn’t mean you can’t choose your words wisely. Use the tips above to say “I don’t know” in a way that inspires confidence—without having to sacrifice the truth or the details.
Sara McCord is a freelance writer and editor, who most frequently covers the career beat. For nearly three years, she was an editor at The Muse, and she's regularly contributed career advice to Mashable. Her advice has been published across the web (Forbes, Newsweek, Fast Company,TIME, Inc., Business Insider, CNBC and more). Sara has experience managing programs; recruiting, interviewing, and referring job applicants; building strategic partnerships; advising executive directors; and supporting a national network of volunteers. Learn more and send her a note through her website, or follow her on Twitter @sarajmccord.More from this Author